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By Suresh Menon
Not having a third Test in South Africa might have worked in India’s favour, after all. It might have been different had India won the first Test; they didn’t because they lacked the bowling to claim 20 wickets.
Off spinner Ashwin was a disappointment on a fifth day track (might India have won if Ravindra Jadeja had played instead?), and the medium pacers were reduced to bowling out of reach of the batsmen to discourage any heroics as the match was drawn.
Then came a rejuvenated Dale Steyn in the second Test, and suddenly all the clichés fell into place. India struggled against top class fast bowling, threw some wickets away, got one bad decision and one near-unplayable ball that took care of the middle order and couldn’t survive the day.
If the bowling let India down on the final day at the Wanderers, at Kingsmead it was the batting that failed to hold together on the final day.
Yet, it is the batting that holds out more promise, and there is the suggestion that the players to replace the great foursome of Tendulkar-Dravid-Laxman-Ganguly are already in place. Virat Kohli’s efforts in the first Test, a century and 96, fell just short of emulating the century in each innings by Vijay Hazare in Australia and Rahul Dravid in New Zealand four decades apart. These are the only two occasions when Indians have achieved the feat outside Asia.
As India prepare to play series in New Zealand, England and Australia this year, it will be the inability to claim 20 wickets in a match that will be haunting them rather than the poor batting that saw them lose the final Test in South Africa.
The last time India claimed 20 wickets in a Test abroad was in Jamaica in the West Indies two and a half years ago. That was the last time they won a Test abroad before the wipe-outs in England and Australia. Those series saw the careers of two stalwarts, Dravid and Laxman, come to an end; soon Tendulkar himself cried halt after a home series.
In South Africa, the batting of Kohli and Cheteswara shone above all else. There was too the near-century by Murali Vijay that suggested the right-hander had come to stay as opener. There is a touch of the Tendulkar-Dravid to the Kohli-Pujara partnership, which is good.
What is not so good is the apparent feeling in the dressing room that these two are meant to score all the runs and if they get out, then the game is over. This has seen a lack of effort from the lower middle order and the tail. Both Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Jadeja threw their wickets away under pressure on the final day of the series, and none of the bowlers seemed to have spent time at the nets.
Granted, they were up against Steyn, but it was the lack of effort that stood out. But these are issues that can be sorted out more easily than the issue of the primary job of the bowlers, which is to take wickets.
Mohammed Shami was impressive, but Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan were not; these three will probably start in the first Test in New Zealand, and India will have to take it on from there. Ishant Sharma should, by now, have grown enough to take over the mantle from the 300-wicket man Zaheer. But in 53 Tests, his 149 wickets have come at an average of 39. Thirty one of those Tests have been abroad where he averages 43 for his 87 wickets.
India are guaranteed tracks that assist pace and seam on each of their next three tours, and with Zaheer Khan in decline, the bowling will have to find its version of Kohli and Pujara quickly.
A drawn series in South Africa might have been respectable given the expectations when the team landed there. India did well to come so close to winning the first Test, but in the end the bowling unit has returned with more questions than answers.