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By Srinivas Kanchibhotla
What stings more - a complete rout or a photo-finish? The end results reading the same (win/loss), the manner in which they have been arrived at, in both the instances, causes much heartburn. In all the previous occasions that India toured the Protean land, an abject surrender with a token resistance was what was expected of the team (in the limited over format) and the Indians obliged in kind living up to that reputation by notching up a whole of 3 victories in a span of couple of decades. But that was before the side turned into a professional unit, less dependent on lone warriors for its survival, and became capable of snagging improbable victories right from the jaws of hopeless situations. No tall score remained safe enough to be left alone, no low score wasn't worth defending. In between, the team touched its zenith becoming the top-ranked side in the world (this time rightly so, unlike its ratings in the longer format) felling mighty teams in their own backyards....except South Africa.
This time, the conditions were right, the composition was right and the will and the urge to set right a wretched record was right in place. Which is why, it begs to be asked, which read-out hurts bad - an expected 0-5 trouncing (or a 1-4, with the usual consolation crumbs thrown by the way of loyal visitors) or a hard-fought loss of 2-3? Despite the chills, scares, and frights, despite the plight of nail-less fingers, hair-less foreheads and stressed out hearts, and other tolls on the physical bodies and mental psyches, players and watchers would rather endure the serious heart-burn ensuing from a close loss than the heavy burden of an ignominious defeat.
This has been one strange series for the Indians, having lost the bulwark of batting forces to injuries, and yet competed tooth and nail with depleted reserves against formidable opponents right until the last session of the final game. The top order showing its fragility and frailty and some inspired bowling and awe-inspiring fielding, it is the lower order that put up its hand up both with the ball and the bat, showing how it is done to their reputation-rich brethren.
The post-series statement by Dhoni said it all - no score is secure in the last 10 overs, even with its tail wagging. Though it was disappointing that the young brigade of future prospects couldn't make best use of the chances and conditions, save for a performance here and there, Indians can take heart in the fact that their lower order is more than capable of pulling down double shifts on either side of the session, come the need. That they have been putting up consistent performances with the bat bodes well for upcoming grand gala event. Just as a wicket-keeper can no longer be just that, and has to contribute with the bat, the series has certainly raised the bar on the qualifications of front-line bowlers. If anything, this series is a testament to the tenacity of the fringe players, who have come a long way from being mere tag-alongs and appendages, when it came to batting. Though they are far from being labeled all-rounders, they certainly worked for and deserve more important titles, game-changers and match-winners. Hail the peripherals!
South Africans have always been an enigma, when it came to the limited over engagement, whose results consistently belied the enormous potential the team possessed both in its batting and bowling ranks. Even after being blessed with an eternal spring of fearsome pacers and imposing batsmen, the side seems to suffer with a self-doubt that prevents it from imposing its will ruthlessly on teams that had no answer to its pace and bounce nor its free-flowing stroke-making. And this weakness was in full display yet again in this series, when it crashed and crumbled, wilted and bundled even under benign conditions.
The final 3-2 records speaks less of the Indian fight back than it does about South African throw away. Still continuing with the traditional composition of specialist batsmen and specialist bowlers (held together by a lone all-rounder), in this current age of bits and pieces utility players, the conventional wisdom of stacking the side with specialists is called into question, whenever one unit (batting/bowling) has an off-day. The over reliance on the specialist kind puts enormous pressure on the top order to perform and the lower order to deliver on every single occasion, and when things don't pan out as per the script, collapses such as 6/30, 5/20, 6/19 become commonplaces. The same balance that seems to pay rich dividends to the team in test cricket, appears to holding them off from reaching the great heights that team is indeed capable of.
Traditionalism might have scraped by new-age thinking this time around, but only barely. The extremes might not have prevailed over the traditional means, but it certainly gave them a mighty scare.