India’s tour of South Africa has turned into an unending misery. To lose in both red and white ball series so comprehensively to a far inferior side – on paper as it turned out! – leaves Indian cricket in shambles currently. Given the frenetic calendar for the team, there is a need for deep introspection, but no time to procrastinate. Remedial measures to improve the situation have to flow rapidly.
India’s surrender in both formats has been astonishingly weak. After winning the first Test, the other two were lost by margins of seven wickets each, both on bowler-friendly pitches, and despite having the more experienced bowlers and batsmen. There was to be no redemption in the ODI rubber with India losing two matches on the trot to give the home team this rubber too and by big margins again.
It’s rare that India has been humbled so badly in different formats playing anywhere in the past decade. Why this should be the case despite having a full-strength team is something that will have to be scrutinized and inquired into. True, leading batsman Rohit Sharma wasn’t on tour, but they’re enough players of caliber to make up for his absence in Tests and ODIs.
Make no mistake, this has been a fantastic performance by the proteas considering that they were dogged by controversy and are in the process of rebuilding, with only Dean Elgar, Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada with a depth of experience. This only makes the contrast starker. Also, de Kock retired from red-ball cricket after the first Test, and spearhead Rabada has been rested for the ODI series, but this hasn’t worked to India’s advantage any, making the defeats even more unpalatable.
These setbacks apart, Indian cricket has been thrown into further and unexpected turmoil after Virat Kohli stepped down from the Test captaincy after the series was lost. On the face of it, this may have appeared a voluntary decision made in remorse for not leading India to its first-ever series win in South Africa as was widely anticipated. However, it is no secret that Kohli and the BCCI had not been on the same page in recent times.
In weeks preceding the tour, he had quit from the T20 captaincy and had the ODI captaincy taken away from him, leading to furore and controversy. Kohli and BCCI president Sourav Ganguly were virtually at loggerheads over how this transition was handled. Relations had obviously soured beyond salvaging and forced his hand. My reading is that Kohli would have relinquished the Test captaincy even had he won the series.
I suspect we haven’t heard the last of this story. For the present, the selectors and BCCI are in a quandary over whom to make the Test captain. Rohit Sharma, who was vice-captain for the series in South Africa before injury forced him to miss the tour, is the obvious and logical choice, but his recurring fitness problems have thrown the establishment into turmoil.
Others being talked about as possible successors to Kohli are K L Rahul, who led the team in one Test and the ODI series in South Africa, veteran off-spinner R Ashwin and young guns, Rishabh Pant and Jasprit Bumrah. Fortunately, the next Test series is still some time away which gives the BCCI breathing space, but with a plateful of issues and problems to resolve.
Talking of Kohli, the stress on him was evident from the Test series. The desire to create history by winning a series in South Africa was juxtaposed by the need to rediscover big-scoring form, something which has eluded him for more than two years now and has increased the universe of sceptics about his abilities considerably.
Kohli strived hard, showing intent and resolve. In the first Test, he was full of his usual energy and chutzpah as India coasted to a big win even though his own contribution with the bat was modest. Missing the second Test because of injury, he returned for the third with a more measured approach, conscious perhaps that his team – especially the batting – was strong and the threat from South Africa was dire.
Kohii’s 79 in the first innings was a classic exhibition of technical virtuosity and resolve on a spicy pitch, but in the second, with the top order collapsing once again, he became overly defensive, which kept South Africa in the hunt for a win despite Pant’s belligerent century. It’s a travesty that the most newsworthy thing Kohli will be remembered for in his final Test as captain is his show of rancor when a DRS appeal went against India. For someone who has the best captaincy record in Indian cricket history, and given his own fabulous contribution as a batter and motivational leader, he deserved a better send-off.
Unshackled from captaincy responsibilities Kohli — and cricket fans across the world — will be hoping that he rediscovers his mojo and starts batting with the authority and exuberance of old. In the first ODI, he appeared far more relaxed than he has done in many months, and also showed some vintage panache in making an attractive half-century. But in the second match, he was out for a blob, which kind of stymied the celebrations. That, and of course, the defeats In both matches.
As in the Test series, India squandered opportunities in both ODIs too. In the first match, a sparkling partnership between Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli held out the promise that the stiff target of 296 would be overhauled. But after Kohli’s dismissal, the innings caved in without a fight. In the second match, India failed to defend 287. Apart from Jasprit Bumrah, the other bowlers were profligate and South Africa won by a thumping7-wicket margin.
Barring the odd inning – Dhawan and Kohi in the first match, Pant in the second—India’s much vaunted batting was tepid. The bowling, barring Bumrah. lacked penetration. Shardul Thakur showed fighting spirit, but the others were poor or nondescript. The catching and ground fielding was fielding was sloppy. To put it bluntly, India were thoroughly outplayed. The final match of the ODI series is still to be played, but all things considered, it would be a pyrrhic victory – small consolation — if it come. If South Africa complete a whitewash, it would be calamitous.
Collectively and individually, this match throws up big challenges for the Indian players, not the least to Kohli. He’s had a modest tour as yet. If he finishes it in rousing style, there might still be something for Indian fans to cheer.