India’s ageing middle order blown away by SA’s top-class pace attack

Out of the ruins often emerge the contours of a revival; if India heed the signs, this latest misadventure in South Africa might yet provide a silver lining

India's batting, the one-time strength, is gradually becoming something of an Achilles’ heel, devolved rapidly as the series went deeper

When Virat Kohli’s bunch left Mumbai a month ago, it entertained realistic ambitions of becoming the first Indian team to win a Test series in South Africa. Not only were they the No.1-ranked side in the world and their opponents a lowly No.6, man for man, they also possessed the more experienced, more pedigreed resources.

The belief that history was in the offing took deep root when India stormed to a convincing victory in the first Test in Centurion. K.L. Rahul led the batting with a sparkling century, Mohammed Shami spearheaded the bowling with a five-wicket haul and the visitors seemed firmly on course to break their duck.

But what is it that they say about the best laid plans of men and mice?

On Friday afternoon, South Africa completed a sensational fightback, rising like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes to pull off a second successful challenging run-chase in some style and maintain their proud unbeaten record at home against India. The disappointment on the faces of Kohli and head coach Rahul Dravid did little to mask their astonishment at how a literal done deal had gone so spectacularly wrong.

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It’s not hard to see why India’s challenge fell so dramatically flat on its face. Their batting, the one-time strength, is gradually becoming something of an Achilles’ heel, devolved rapidly as the series went deeper. By the time of their final innings in Cape Town, India were wondering where their next run would come from. In an abysmal display of lack of application and stomach for battle, India were blown away by South Africa’s high-class pace attack, with the continued failings of the misfiring Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane sticking out like a sore thumb.

The conviction that India had the wherewithal to beard the South African lion in its own den had been steeped in commonsense and practicality. Despite missing new Test vice-captain Rohit Sharma and crack all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja through injury, India seemed to have all bases covered.

Agreed, the middle-order wasn’t in the best form, but the triumvirate of Pujara, Kohli and Rahane was expected to stand up manfully to the task of negotiating the not inconsiderable threat posed by Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Duanne Olivier. After all, between them, they had played more Tests than the entire South African squad put together and even though Test runs had deserted them for two years, class will always be out, right?

Wrong. Emphatically, doubly, cripplingly wrong.

For all the tall proclamations about the temporariness of form and the permanence of class, Pujara and Rahane didn’t turn things around. The former aggregated 124 runs and averaged 20.66, the latter’s corresponding numbers were only marginally better at 136 and 22.66 respectively. An XI with five full-time bowlers and therefore a batsman short by choice had every reason to insist on greater, more meaningful returns from a pair of experienced batsmen; recent evidence suggests, though, that they are well past their sell-by date.

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The theory of collective responsibility, no matter its soundness, can’t be used as a prop anymore to bail Pujara and Rahane out. Their ‘form’ has spilled over too long for it to be just temporary anymore. Since the start of 2020, Pujara averages 26.29 in 20 Tests, Rahane 24.08 in 19 matches. Between them, they have a solitary hundred and 11 half-centuries 73 innings. Makes one question how permanent class is, right?

India’s batting woes didn’t begin and end with Pujara and Rahane. After a promising beginning, stand-in opener Mayank Agarwal lapsed into the technical morass that ushered him out of the playing XI, while KL Rahul blew hot and cold. Kohli, no longer the authoritative force of until two years back, was more foot soldier than general and Rishabh Pant didn’t really spring to life until the final innings of the series.

All of this meant India topped 300 just once in six innings; the five remaining totals ranged between 174 and 266 as the visitors casually tossed away positions of strength with unchecked batting collapses, which left the bowlers with too much to do.

India were caught unawares by the incisiveness of the towering Marco Jansen, a somewhat surprise inclusion at the start of the series but a terrific force by the end. Standing at 6 feet 8, his steepling bounce and left-arm over angle made life impossibly hard for India’s flat-footed batsmen. Jansen more than held his own as he finished with 19 wickets at a better average and strike-rate compared to Rabada, who topped all comers with 20 scalps.

Between them, Rabada, Jansen and Ngidi accounted for 54 of the 60 Indian wickets, ensuring that the frightfully quick Anrich Nortje wasn’t missed at all. By contrast, India rapidly started to resemble a two-bowler attack by the start of the third Test, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami left to do the shock and stock bowling duties. They did combine for 26 scalps, but with Mohammed Siraj handicapped through injury and R Ashwin failing to translate bravado into returns, they felt the pressure of having to do the heavy lifting, especially at the start of South Africa’s run-chases in the last two Tests, both masterfully shepherded by the hitherto unheralded but now highly celebrated newcomer Keegan Petersen.

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Perhaps, the Indians either didn’t have enough data or didn’t do enough homework on Jansen and Player of the Series Petersen, who was just the tonic the indefatigable Dean Elgar needed as he took it upon himself to lead from the front after the first-Test debacle. In direct contrast to India’s floundering batting, South Africa grew in stature as the series progressed, the likes of Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma making the transition from boys to men in visible, tangible and exemplary fashion.

As India prepare for their next tryst in the World Test Championship, a two-match home series against Sri Lanka in February-March, the time is nigh for tough but unavoidable calls. Pujara and Rahane have outlived their utility, even as the likes of Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vihari are itching to have their time under the sun. Out of the ruins often emerge the contours of a revival; if India heed the signs, this latest misadventure in South Africa might yet provide a silver lining.

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