Virat Kohli finished the tour with 871 runs © AFP
Virat Kohli finished the tour with 871 runs © AFP

Bhuvneshwar Kumar ran in to bowl the first ball of India’s tour of South Africa on January 5 at Cape Town. He struck with his third ball to send back an in-form Dean Elgar. Seven weeks later, at same venue, Bhuvi bowled the final ball of the tour and got a wicket with it. Between the first and the last deliveries, Bhuvi established himself as a mainstay across formats. Perhaps India’s biggest gain in the tour and learning too. 

Rohit Sharma had completed the catch off Bhuvi. He trended throughout the day. He keeps Twitter busy, doesn’t he? He had trended on the first day of the tour as well. His fans, as big a base as his trolls (if not bigger), expressed their elation as Ajinkya Rahane’s admirers had tweeted in disbelief. Rahane had been dropped for the Cape Town Test.

The reasons varied but Rohit found the trends on the final day as well. He was the stand-in captain. He got out to Junior Dala for the third time in a row to a low score (reason enough for the mockers to guffaw) but he led India to win in the decider and there were some smart moves.

India lost the Test series but ended up winning 8 games on the tour in comparison to South Africa’s 4. The ODIs were handsomely pocketed 5-1 and the T20Is 2-1. In a nutshell, this was India’s best overseas tour (excluding Sri Lanka and West Indies) in recent time. A tour that narrates a tale of dominance yet missed opportunities and results layered with veiled notions.

T20Is (India 2, South Africa 1)

Seven runs. It all came down to that. Hadn’t it been for the late Dinesh Karthik blitz (a 6-ball 13) or the Suresh Raina mayhem in the Powerplay overs, South Africa would have been the happier side, clinching two out of three trophies.

Ironically, Raina was making a comeback. As for Karthik, he always makes a comeback.

The Goods

In Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit and KL Rahul, India have three world-class openers in this format. It was unfortunate that Rahul, India’s second- ranked T20I batsman, warmed benches during the series. Dhawan cashed in on his form and set the tone for the series with his 39-ball 72 at Johannesburg. He ended with most runs in an India-South Africa bilateral series.

The middle order did their bit. Raina thrived, as did Manish Pandey. MS Dhoni reassured the critics’ knives back in the sheath for now. Hardik Pandya chipped in as well. This hasn’t been a great tour for him, but take away his 17-ball 21 and 4-0-22-1 from the Cape Town T20I and South Africa could have walked free.

Suresh Raina made the opportunities count © AFP
Suresh Raina made the opportunities count © AFP

And then the bowling unit led by Bhuvi, who deservingly walked away with the Man of the Series.

Leadership

For all the talks of arrogance, little credit has gone Virat Kohli’s way in terms of leadership. He amassed 871 runs in the tour and remained peerless with the bat, and that rightly bagged all headlines.

Kohli is a successful opener in T20s. With Dhawan and Rohit playing, he has to move down to No. 3. This time, however, he pushed himself further down to accommodate Raina at that position.

Raina, perceived a finisher, prefers batting at his IPL position of No. 3. Making a comeback, you need ample opportunities and Kohli provided him that.

The worry

They saw too many good options are a happy problem for the team management. But it boils down to choosing your best XI. Yuzvendra Chahal has been phenomenal, as has been Kuldeep Yadav. A major part of the Indian success story has been the formula of wrist spin to win. The duo has kept Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin out of the limited-overs format.

India vs South Africa 2017-18: India's marks out of 10 in T20Is
India vs South Africa 2017-18: India's marks out of 10 in T20Is

But then give them a soapy ball. Kuldeep didn’t play the T20Is and Chahal leaked 64 runs off his 4 overs in the rain-effected Centurion T20I.

In modern-day cricket, where umpires push the limits of playing conditions and continue the game in heavy drizzles for the sake of stakeholders, bowlers, especially wrist-spinners, are at disadvantage for their inability to control the wet ball.

Wrist-spin is a difficult art to master. It’s nearly impossible to execute plans for a wrist spinner with a wet ball.

Even in the Johannesburg ODI that was rain-marred, Chahal and Kuldeep struggled with the wet ball. Rain came to South Africa’s rescue twice as they managed wins in both the games.

Wrist spin to win: Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal bagged 33 wicket together in the ODI series © AFP
Wrist spin to win: Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal bagged 33 wicket together in the ODI series © AFP

The bad

India play a T20I tournament in Sri Lanka next. A bunch of players, including Kohli and Dhoni, has been rested. Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar’s workloads are perhaps understandable, but Dhoni does not play Tests while Kuldeep participated in just the ODIs. Also, Hardik, a man who isn’t assured of a place in the side, is being rested. He rested in the Sri Lanka Test series too.

That tournament will be followed by a domestic tournament, IPL, with its usual lure of hefty pay-cheques. Though the upcoming triangular gives India an opportunity to test their bench, one wonders whether the right precedence is being set.

The buzz around is to kill T20Is and continue it only at franchise level. With second-string sides at fore, as in the case for South Africa in this series, it only ignites the theory.

ODIs (India 5, South Africa 1)

AB de Villiers being ruled out of the first 3 games served as a huge blow. Faf du Plessis scored a splendid hundred in the first game at Durban, only for it to be nullified by another Kohli special. India went one-up and South Africa braced for more worries.

Du Plessis was ruled out of the series. Quinton de Kock followed suit. With three mainstays gone, the captaincy cloak fell up the 1-ODI old Aiden Markram ahead of Hashim Amla, JP Duminy or David Miller, or even de Villiers once he returned.

India need Plan B before 2019 World Cup
India need Plan B before 2019 World Cup

South Africa started the series as the top-ranked ODI side. They surrendered it to India midway through the series.

Kohli’s bat continued speaking its master’s mind. The South Africans had no answer to Chahal and Kuldeep, who collectively claimed 33 wickets from 6 ODIs. Kuldeep also bagged most wickets (17) in a bilateral series in South Africa.

Kohli became the first batsman to cross 500 runs in a bilateral series. He added 3 contrasting hundreds to his tally to make the count 35. The first at Durban came in a difficult chase of 270. It was a typical under-pressure Kohli special.

The next was 160* at Cape Town, where the surface wasn’t the greatest to bat; Kohli resorted to quick singles, running a century of runs and getting India to 303.

Virat Kohli was in a different league but Shikhar Dhawan was at his fluent best © Getty Images
Virat Kohli was in a different league but Shikhar Dhawan was at his fluent best © Getty Images

The last one came at the dead rubber in Centurion. India were chasing only 205 and Kohli went berserk. He exhibited variety and showed the kind of damage he can do with a free mind. He clobbered a 96-ball 129, of which 88 runs came in boundaries. 

India out-fielded South Africa throughout the series, too. Not many thought the day would come, but it did.

The Rahane truth, the Kohli veil

With less than a year-and-half to go for the World Cup, India’s struggle with a settled middle-order continues. Till the Sri Lanka series, Ajinkya Rahane used to be a back-up opener. He is now back in the middle-order. He started with an alluring 79 at Durban: had it was a screen act would be nominated as the best supporting role at the Academy Awards.

This was followed by 11, 8, 8 and 34*. Is Rahane going to win India games with the bat like a Kohli or Rohit or Dhawan?

Is Ajinkya Rahane the right man at No.4 in ODIs? © AFP
Is Ajinkya Rahane the right man at No.4 in ODIs? © AFP

In 90 ODIs, Rahane averages 35.26. His strike rate reads 78. If we place the numbers in all-time categories they make a decent read, but not in 2010s.

Top 15 batters who have played similar number of ODIs as Rahane in 2010s (Cut off: 1,500 runs and 80-100 ODIs)

Players M R Ave HS SR 100s 50s
David Warner 99 4,237 45.55 179 97 14 16
Quinton de Kock 90 3,860 45.41 178 94 13 15
Shane Watson 94 3,481 40.47 185* 96 5 23
Aaron Finch 88 3,200 38.55 148 90 10 18
Brendon Taylor 84 3,066 39.30 145* 83 8 16
George Bailey 90 3,044 40.58 156 84 3 22
Michael Clarke 82 3,036 48.19 117 81 4 20
Ajinkya Rahane 90 2,962 35.26 111 79 3 24
Ian Bell 82 2,933 40.17 141 82 3 20
Paul Stirling 85 2,900 35.36 177 92 6 14
Marlon Samuels 85 2,728 37.88 133* 76 8 10
Brendon McCullum 97 2,696 31.71 119 110 3 16
Darren Bravo 90 2,555 32.44 124 70 3 17
Kieron Pollard 86 2,142 28.18 119 94 3 9

The West Indian plight in ODIs is well highlighted in the chart. The Ian Bells and George Baileys have started to fade out from ODIs. When the averages come down, look at the strike rate. A sample size of 90 ODIs is good enough to illustrate your strength.

Where does Rahane fit in today’s mould?

Kohli’s form has veiled a lot of middle-order woes. Rahul, considered the complete package till Sri Lanka tour, was not considered for the role. Neither was Manish Pandey, the man who looks apt for the job. Kedar Jadhav made sporadic appearances before injuring himself and Karthik’s conspicuous absence continued. Shreyas Iyer remains a work in progress.

Dhoni has lost some sheen as a finisher in ODIs. That is evident from the fact that the Pandyas are preferred for the role. The Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth ODIs bear testimony.

That is bound to happen in a career as long and illustrious as Dhoni’s. However, Dhoni the batsman is far from over. For India to have a settled line-up, they can surely contemplate giving him a fixed spot in at No. 4 and try that for long.

Dhawan deserves a mention for his rich form. Rohit played one good knock in the tour but the inconsistencies in ODIs were again covered up by Kohli’s brilliance.

The other worries

England can have wet summers. What happens to the wrist-spin-to-win formula? Should the focus be on having a good mix?

What happens when Kohli the human shows up? What if that attack is not Sri Lanka? 2017 Champions Trophy Final, rings a bell?

Tests (South Africa 2, India 1)

“Batting in South Africa and Australia is a different ball game altogether. The bounce is different. The pace is different. In England you could come on front foot and recover. Even in West Indies. Not here,” Sourav Ganguly wrote in A Century Is Not Enough.

South Africa is one of the toughest places to play Tests. This is a statement that has been endorsed by many. It is a tough place to bat. Rahul Dravid averages 29 here, Kumar Sangakkara around 35.

It is even a tougher proposition if you are a subcontinent cricketer. Practice and multiple tour games can help one get close to accustomed before the Test bowlers, all of them in a different league, test you.

India arrived with their best bowling unit that arrived on South African shores, but they were two steps back. First, South Africa were always favourites at home. And then, India decided against playing warm-up matches, a blunder, both in foresight and hindsight.

The wicket at Cape Town was suited for the hosts. The fact that India sniffed a win before the start of the fourth innings illustrates how well they played.

The pace attack — Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander — was the best on display since the West Indies quartet.

Would Rahane have made a difference for sure? The team management backed Rohit’s form and as told to press that Rahane was not at his fluent best in the nets as well. Pandya’s 91 stands as one of the milestones of the series.

The Indian batting succumbed to Philander’s brilliance in the second innings. A target of 208 was 72 too much for the visitors.

Bhuvi stood out as India’s best player in the match. He had South Africa at 12 for 3 inside 5 overs of the Test. He picked a total of 6 wickets and scored 25 and 13* in a low-scoring affair.

If Cape Town win presented South Africa at their destructive best, Centurion was a lost opportunity for India.

Two junctures where India lost the series

A lot has been said, debated and justified. India were on the back foot the moment Kohli announced that Bhuvi had been dropped. The reason cited was that the surface was not conducive to swing and seam movements.

Dropping Bhuvi at Centurion was among the strangest of decisions in recent times. It surely ranks alongside RP Singh’s Oval return of 2011 and Vinay Kumar’s Test debut at Perth.

Dhawan could have been persisted with because Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara are not your guys to win you overseas Tests with their scoring rate. Omitting Dhawan theory was wrong, but only in hindsight. This was also the place where Rahane could have come in.

Wriddhiman Saha’s injury played a foil too. Parthiv Patel contributed little with bat and remained dismal behind stumps.

Pujara experienced two moments of madness and was run out in each innings. Rohit’s perennial weakness against in-swingers continued.

As is the case in today’s Indian cricket, Kohli stood tall and his 153 took India close to South Africa’s first innings total 335, falling short by 28.

Mohammed Shami’s four-wicket haul brought India in the game. Could 287 be chased? Not if Kohli didn’t fire. Rahul’s shot selection remained questionable, so was the case with other Indian batters.

The 135-run defeat could have been averted.

Bhuvi can swing the ball irrespective of conditions. When the team management cited Rohit’s selection ahead of Rahane as a form-based decision, they immediately contradicted it with Bhuvi’s ouster. His form could have lent more to the bowling armoury, and of course, he could have done well with the bat too.

Pandya’s needless run out was the final nail in India’s coffin. India were decently placed at 209 for 5 in the first innings, both Kohli and Pandya well settled. Pandya committed the cardinal sin of not grounding his bat. That run out changed the tempo, denied India the lead, they could have got.

Senses prevail

The surface at Johannesburg resembled the Wimbledon court. Bhuvi was back, as was Rahane. Pujara started a vigil and Kohli exhibited his brilliance. The 187 India got in the first innings was like unearthing a goldmine.

South Africa struggled too. India, powered by Kohli and Rahane, made 247 on that pitch leaving all pundits and critics in awe. India assured that it will be thought multiple times before someone pens them down as flat-track bullies.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar was brilliant with the ball and useful with the bat in both the Tests he played. It remains baffling that he was dropped for the second Test © AFP
Bhuvneshwar Kumar was brilliant with the ball and useful with the bat in both the Tests he played. It remains baffling that he was dropped for the second Test © AFP

Bhuvi’s 33 and Mohammed Shami’s 27 were equally important in extending the lead.

Elgar took all the blows, including one on the head that saw the game being halted, but he hung on. He remained not out on 86 as others fell. Amla got 52 but that was it. Shami eventually got his five-for of the tour.

Earlier in the Test, Bumrah reassured the management’s faith in his elevation to Tests with a five-wicket haul.

If lessons have been learned, India will travel to England as better tourists. However, areas of concerns prevail…

Concerns

India’s opening partnership in this series averaged 18.17. Is it time to throw someone like Prithvi Shaw into the mix?

Pujara and Rohit average in their disappointing 20s outside subcontinent. They have been around for a major part of this decade. Also, Saha is 33 and if his absence leads to turning back to Parthiv, it is not a good sign.

A stiff challenge awaits as India look to hold on to their Test mace.