© Getty Images
© Getty Images

The fifth day at Centurion lived up to everybody’s expectations by not lasting a session. Rohit Sharma and Mohammed Shami got some runs, but that was it. India surrendered to Lungi Ngidi, a boy of 21 who would probably not have played had Dale Steyn remained fit. The margin of 135 runs probably flattered India. 

India’s surrender had been worse at Cape Town. They lost by 72 runs, but they were helped by Steyn hobbling out of the series after bowling 17.3 overs. The others stayed fit, extracted steep bounce, bowled with discipline, and moved the ball to the extent they needed to. And the Indians succumbed, one by one, though Cheteshwar Pujara managed to escape them in both innings at Centurion in a way nobody had anticipated.

The Indian selection for both Tests drew flak. Jasprit Bumrah was thrown to the lions on debut. He did a decent but unspectacular job. Picked ahead of KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan showed ‘intent’ and failed twice.

Ajinkya Rahane was also left out, which drew some flak from — as Virat Kohli pointed out — fans who had criticised the selectors for persisting with Rahane in the Sri Lanka series. Rahane had scored 17 runs at 3.40 in that series. Pujara (average 29 in Australia, England, South Africa, and New Zealand combined before the series) and Rohit Sharma (25) — men with little credentials outside the subcontinent and West Indies — were picked ahead of Rahane (49).

South Africa clinch Freedom series, crush India by 135 runs to win 2nd Test
South Africa clinch Freedom series, crush India by 135 runs to win 2nd Test

Was it an error? In the same Sri Lanka series Rohit had got 217 runs (dismissed once) and Pujara 289 at 57.80. Additionally, Rohit also collared them for an ODI double-hundred and a T20I hundred. India opted for form over an entire career.

India had a plan that backfired, just like the decision to skip practice matches. They made things more interesting in the second Test. Rahul was selected ahead of Dhawan, which was probably a backward step — but it paled in comparison against the exclusion of Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

It was a counterintuitive move, more so given India’s form-over-career theory: wasn’t Bhuvi India’s finest performer (6 for 120, 25 and 13*) at Cape Town? Weren’t India contradicting themselves?

To be fair, the oft-ridiculed Ishant Sharma bowled brilliantly. Unfortunately, despite Mohammed Shami bowling with gumption and Ravichandran Ashwin rising to the challenge on Day One, there was little support. It might have been a different story if Ishant and Bhuvi had played alongside Shami and Ashwin.

As we will see shortly, this was where the series was lost — not because the cream of Indian bowlers failed, but because the support cast did not do their job.

The bowlers

All four South African fast bowlers have 7 or more wickets (Ngidi from 1 Test) at under 22. Yes, they have been that deadly. If anything, Steyn (2 for 51) has been the sole ‘failure’ among them.

The Indians fast bowlers have not done poorly. Shami, Ishant, and Bhuvneshwar all averaged under 21. At a casual glance, thus, the fast bowlers from both sides may seem evenly matched.

The problem lies elsewhere. Ngidi, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, and Kagiso Rabada have got 34 wickets between them (Steyn got 2 more) while the Indian trio has 20. Worse, Ishant and Bhuvi have not played together.

What does this mean? India have had three successful bowlers, but South Africa has not had to deal with more than two in the same match. South Africa, on the other hand, have come at India’s throat in every session armed with four fast bowlers of the highest quality.  

Freedom series, 2017-18: First 2 Tests

South Africa India
 

Ave <=26

Ave <26

 

Ave <=26

Ave <26

Bowlers B SR Bowlers B SR Bowlers B SR Bowlers B SR
Ngidi

158

23

Maharaj

216

216

Ishant

234

47

Ashwin

459

66

Philander

337

34

      Bhuvi

180

30

Bumrah

434

62

Morkel

361

45

      Shami

354

39

Pandya

258

86

Rabada

376

42

                 
Steyn

105

53

                 
Per innings

334

37

 

54

216

Per innings

192

38

 

288

68

Let us understand the table here. There are two groups of bowlers. The first, with average 26 or less (Steyn has 25.50; the bar would have been 22 otherwise); the second, with the others.

The Indian bowlers in the first bracket have taken a wicket every 38 balls compared to the 37 by the South Africans. What went wrong, then?

The South African bowlers in the first bracket bowled 334 balls per innings (55.4 overs) while others (only Maharaj, that is) bowled 9. For the Indians, the ratio was 33 overs (<=26) to 48 (>26).

In other words, the difference was not with the top bracket. They did brilliantly. The support cast, who did the bulk of the bowling, failed to make an impact. South Africa could afford to under-bowl their fifth bowler. India could not. Even their third bowler (reminder: Bhuvi and Ishant did not play together) was ordinary.

The batsmen

Before comparing the batsmen, it is pertinent to point out that the India had a decent pace attack, but were up against one of the greatest pace-bowling attacks of all time. There is no doubt about this. So good is the attack that Morkel (289 wickets at 28.24) is the worst of the lot — if ‘worst’ is relevant in this case — by a substantial distance. The others all average under 22.50.

No, there is no doubt that India were up against the greatest pace-bowling attack since the West Indians of the 1980s. That is something one needs to understand before criticising the batsmen.

The batsmen

The South Africans batsmen have not set the grounds on fire. AB de Villiers has scored 200 in the series, but barring him and Faf du Plessis, no one has averaged over 34. Their top three — Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, and Hashim Amla — have got one fifty each but little else of note.

But then, seven times have South Africa gone past the fifty-run mark. De Villiers has, for example, scores of 65, 35, 20, and 80. An average of 50 is excellent under any circumstances, but in the current series — where too many fast bowlers have averaged under 25 — it is definitely worth a lot higher.

Contrast this with Rohit, whose scores read 11, 10, 11, and 47. If one takes a last innings away (it was, after all, a valiant counterattack on a burning deck), his series comes down to three failed starts.

In other words, both de Villiers and Rohit had got off to four starts each. De Villiers had got three crucial shows out of them (the 35, remember, came out of a score of 135 where he came out at 66 for 3 and was last out). Rohit had got none if we ignore the last innings.

But it is unfair to compare de Villiers and Rohit. Virat Kohli (9 runs less than AB) seems decent, but 153 of his runs came in one innings. He looked promising in the fourth innings at Cape Town, but Philander worked him out.

Kohli’s 153 was one of India’s two scores in excess of fifty in the series. The other was Pandya’s 93. Take Rohit’s 47 away — for it was played in a lost cause — and only Murali Vijay has a score in excess of forty (46 in the first innings at Centurion). Take away the twin contributions of Ashwin, and India’s next best score is Kohli’s 28 at Cape Town.

In stark contrast, du Plessis has crossed 48 thrice. Amla (82), Markram (94), and Elgar (61) have had their one decent contribution. Additionally, Elgar has two scores in excess of 30 and Markram one, and Quinton de Kock has a 43.

Freedom Series, 2017-18: after first 2 Tests

  South Africa India
Double-figures

23

24

10-19

5

14

20-29

5

4

30-39

4

2

40-49

2

2

50+

7

2

You do not need to see check beyond the first two rows. Both sides have had 44 batting innings. India (24) actually have more double-figures than South Africa (23), but 14 of these Indian innings never made it to 20. Only 5 of the South African innings ended at 19 or fewer.

This may seem an odd parameter, but this is not a series decided by huge scores. The side that has failed less with bat has come out on top.