India won the battle at R Premadasa Stadium but lost the World T20 war. Needing to win their last game against South Africa by at least 31 runs to qualify for the semi-finals ahead of Pakistan, India managed only a one-run victory.
South African captain AB de Villiers had admitted at the end of South Africa’s first loss to Pakistan that he had made some captaincy blunders. Faf du Plessis showed tonight what South Africa’s biggest mistake in the tournament was – selecting Richard Levi ahead of him for all games before this.
Despite having scored a century in a T20 game, Levi’s discomfiture against spin has been well-chronicled in the IPL. So even when he scored an unbeaten 50 in the opening game of this tournament, it was against a hapless Zimbabwean attack.
It took the management three games, 12 runs and an ouster from the tournament to realise that mistake before du Plessis replaced Levi in the order. And it took all of 38 balls of batting from du Plessis to drill home that point.
In a power-packed display of batting bull-dozed India out of the tournament, the Chennai Super Kings opener bludgeoned six fours and a couple of sixes on his way to 65 ensuring India’s early flight home.
His innings was the difference between the two teams, with none of the other batsmen coming close to even getting a third of that.
The South African batting collapsed for the third time in the tournament, bowled out for 151 with a ball to spare.
Zaheer Khan eked out out-of-form Hashim Amla, caught at first slip before Jacques Kallis flicked one to mid-wicket off Irfan Pathan. It was all du Plessis after that, who took all the Indian bowlers to cleaners, and diminishing their chances of bowling South Africa out for less than 122.
By the time he was dismissed with South Africa on 95, the chances of making it to the semi-finals had long slipped out of India’s grasp.
India began the game having an advantage of knowing their task on hand. Given the situation they found themselves in, it was but a minor benefit at that.
Pakistan did win their previous game by 32 runs against Australia but for India to repeat that dose under the pressure of knowing they had do exactly that would have taken some doing.
For a team chasing a big score to set, India had a relatively quiet start. A first-ball four through the covers aside, the Indian openers found it difficult to judge the pace of the pitch. Mistimed shots got them nine runs in leg-byes and the frustration of not getting too many off the bat seemed to have got to Gautam Gambhir.
Attempting to flay it through the covers in a style that Gambhir seems to have inherited from Sourav Ganguly, he only managed to get an inside edge to it. The middle stump went to ground and Gambhir back to the pavilion.
It was Virat Kohli’s former Royal Challengers Bangalore teammate Jacques Kallis, who accounted for him. Kohli’s run of scoring is beyond good form but off the very first Kallis over, he fended a short ball down the leg-side to the wicket-keeper. India two wickets down and in a spot.
Often castigated for his rash stroke-play, Sehwag’s was a controlled knock. Till the over he got out that is. With an over of Powerplay remaining, AB de Villiers brought in Robin Peterson, left-arm spin bowler and bait for Sehwag to take.
Sehwag faced two balls from Peterson. He accepted the bait off both. One was sent over long-on for six, the second he missed and was bowled. If it all there was a poor choice of stroke at a time he was needed to settle down, it had to be this.
Captain MS Dhoni has often remarked that the overs between eight and 12 are difficult to build on, with batsmen back in the pavilion. 36/3 in six was exactly the situation Dhoni would have wanted to avoid in this crucial.
Yuvraj Singh had aggression written all over as well. Both spinners, Johan Botha and Peterson were spanked for a six each – one over the covers and the other to mid-wicket. Looking at how easily Yuvraj was playing the slower bowlers, de Villiers brought in Morne Morkel for a second spell.
The move was immediately rewarded. Playing across to one pitching on the middle, Yuvraj missed and the ball sneaked through to flatten the stumps.
India were 68/4 at the halfway stage, desperately in need of a partnership. Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina steadied the ship with a 44-run partnership in six overs before a cameo from Dhoni pushed India up to 152/6 in their 20 overs.
Raina, who came out to bat at six, after Rohit Sharma, contributed 45 before being run-out off the last ball of the innings.
South Africa, in reply, had the chance to register their first win in the Super Eights at 95/3 in the 13th over with du Plessis going strong. But once he was dismissed, the rest of the order capitulated for the addition of 56 runs.
Sadly for India it wasn’t enough.
Suneer Chowdhary is a Mumbai-based sports writer and tweets at @suneerchowdhary