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India tour of South Africa: What could’ve been

There’s an idiosyncratic use of certain words in the English language in South Africa. One that you hear recurrently is how must is deployed. I must eat lunch. I must go to the shops. I must see if that dress is available. Must is used interchangeably with should, could and might. India could, should and might have won their first Test series in South Africa.

Indian fans demand that their team must — in the normal English usage of the word — win every time they play. India should’ve won this series because this was the most inexperienced batting line-up that South Africa had fielded in a home series against them since their readmission to international cricket in 1991-92. India could’ve won this series as their bowling attack wasn’t just skilled, it had experience not just of playing overseas but of winning series along the way. India might’ve won this series because this is a team that wills itself across the line from tough spots, like the one they were in after the second Test was lost.

But, when you post scores of 327, 174, 202, 266, 223 and 198, you must expect to lose more Test matches than you win. There’s no doubt India were luckless in the final Test. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami beat the bat repeatedly but rarely found the edge. When the edge was found it often did not go to hand or carry to the slip cordon. Even tight umpiring calls went against the team, both with umpire’s call and with the Decision Review System, but none of these cost India the series.

The final innings of the final Test summed up India’s efforts. Rishabh Pant played out of his skin to be unbeaten on 100, but the only other meaningful contribution came from Virat Kohli, and that too only 29. This was in part because Kohli was batting conservatively, in the knowledge that his colleagues were struggling to put runs on the board or stitch partnerships together. Had Pant gone early or South Africa been a bit tighter and conceded fewer than their 28 extras, this would’ve been a mauling.

Some point out that India’s bowlers were ineffective in the second innings of the second and third Test matches. The numbers show that India took only six of a possible 20 fourth innings wickets in these games. But, while bowling and batting are distinct activities, they are more closely interlinked than you would imagine.

This magnificent bowling attack, which did not flag till the dying end, was called to deliver miracles each time they were in harness. This is asking for too much, especially when you handicap them by not giving them a buffer of runs to work with. The first step to taking wickets is creating pressure, and that is difficult to do when the opposition batsmen know that two good sessions, one big innings or one decent partnership could take the game away.

And, finally, there’s the small matter of picking the right team. Both Kohli and Rahul Dravid said that the extra height of South Africa’s fast bowlers allowed them to extract more from the conditions. That doesn’t reconcile well with picking Umesh Yadav ahead of Ishant Sharma, who is a head taller. A settled Indian team came up against a South African team in transition. Three short Tests later, it’s time for India to pull the trigger on their middle-order transition. They simply must.

BRIEF SCORES India 223 (Kohli 79, Pujara 43; Rabada 4/73, Jansen 3/55) & 198 (Pant 100*, Kohli 29; Jansen 4/36, Ngidi 3/21, Rabada 3/53) lost to South Africa 210 (Petersen 72; Bumrah 5/42) & 212/3 (Petersen 82, van der Dussen 41*, Bavuma 32*) by 7 wickets

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