India lost in South Africa because the team “didn’t play smart cricket,” said head coach Rahul Dravid. This succinct sentence gets to the heart of the matter, though I know of a few that wouldn’t have been so understated.
I would classify the overall performance as pathetic considering the slump after winning the first test nicely. Losing five races at the trot – in two formats – suggests a lack of determination, lack of focus, lack of skill, surrender if you will.
This takes nothing away from the beautiful spectacle of South Africa. Man-for-man – on paper – they lagged far behind. After the first test was lost, a whitewash by India in the red and white ball rubbers seemed most likely. To rock the Test series from here on was a remarkable achievement.
South Africa played at home, of course, but given the meager talent available, and compounded by the long-standing racism controversy that had rocked the country’s cricketing establishment, this victory was no less stunning than India’s against Australia 12 months earlier. .
Surprisingly, the guts, guts, and chutzpah that had helped India turn the tables on the Aussies were only occasionally apparent. As each day brought a new crisis, Dravid’s face began to turn pale and the shoulders began to sag. By the time the third ODI was lost, he seemed stunned at the ineptitude of a team that had promised a rich bounty.
Teams playing abroad these days are more or less doomed if they don’t get scores of 325-350 first. There was only one India score above 300, in the first test won. In ODIs, 300 is considered substandard today. India failed to reach this benchmark first and failed to achieve even lower scores. More pertinently, when the chips ran out, the Proteas increased their performance, in batting and bowling.
Rabada, Jansen and Nigidi took more wickets than Bumrah, Shami and Thakur in India’s second innings with the Test even, Peterson, Elgar and Co scored heavier under pressure in the fourth innings leading to emphatic wins in the second and third turn agreement.
In ODIs, the story was similar. South Africa’s percussion was more authoritative, the bowlers pulled things back to the middle overs every time and the fieldwork remained brilliant in both formats. Simply put, India was confused.
The absence of Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja was of course well felt. Rohit has been India’s best batsman in all formats for a few years now. His experience as a captain would have been invaluable in ODIs. Jadeja in white-ball cricket is a ‘gun’ player with bat, ball and in the field.
But South Africa also missed important players. Anrich Nortje was declared unfit on the eve of the Test series and also skipped the ODI’s. Match winning wicketkeeper batsman Quinton de Kock retired suddenly after the first Test. Kagiso Rabada, the highest wicket taker in Tests, was given rest for the ODIs.
Did the ongoing captaincy with Virat Kohli have any impact?
When the environment is gripped by uncertainty, the interplay and relationships between players inevitably change. The dynamics in the locker room begin to adapt to the emerging power matrix: some players react with fear, others with ambition, which can divert attention from the primary task of winning.
It was no secret that Kohli was entangled with BCCI for several months. His wife’s Instagram post after he resigned makes this clear, and he would likely have left the Test captain even if the series had been won. The systematic dismantling of his power in recent months left him little choice.
Given the plethora of failures of the highest order, Kohli showed determination and finesse without touching the heights of yesteryear where he would win such matches on his own. He must quickly adapt to the changed situation, rediscovering his mojo to become the dominant player he was. Much depends on the place the former captain finds for himself in the rearranged locker room. The role of a senior statesman, though anachronistic to his cricketing character, could prove rewarding for him and the team.
This brings us to Dravid. On his first foreign assignment, he found himself in an unexpected maelstrom. Several defeats suffered, test captain lost, several key players – in red and white ball cricket – emerged as if over the mound, out of shape or with no appetite to compete at the highest level. His plate of worries is full.
With the T20 World Cup, ODI World Cup and World Test Championship on the line in the coming years, Dravid has his job to do: identify the right staff for different formats in conjunction with the selectors, but more importantly, restore stability in the locker room.
Currently it is wobbly, fragile and urgently needs a reboot to be able to play smart cricket again.