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Where Did India Falter With Their Best Chance to Win a Series in South Africa?

The narrative built around India’s 2021-22 tour to South Africa was that of the No.1 Test side being the firm favourites to script yet another historic series victory –their first-ever on Protea soil. And you would not fault the broadcasters this time around – who have been previously guilty of quite a few cringeworthy series build-ups in the past – to have hyped the series as such. After all, India were coming into the series on the back of unbelievable performances in the longest format away from home. With consecutive series wins in Australia, leading in England before the final Test was postponed (the only glitch being the tame loss to New Zealand in the WTC Championship final), there was little doubt that this India team would prove to be a handful for the South African team still in transition.

Interestingly, India’s recent ascendency away from home pretty much started in South Africa in 2018, even though they went on to lose the series. That team had Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander, Quinton de Kock, AB de Villiers, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn; add to the mix a young Kagiso Rabada and the promising duo of Temba Bavuma and Aiden Markram. After losing the first two Tests, India came back well to end the series on a high with a win in Johannesburg. Jasprit Burmah was the star in the making for India having made his debut in the series, while a rejuvenated Mohammad Shami showed what he is made of.

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Despite the fact South Africa is probably the toughest place to bat, in 2018, Indian batters came up short, managing a score of 250 only once in six innings. South Africa, on the other hand, managed to score over 250 thrice with two of them being 300-plus scores. Now, fast forward to the 2021-22 series; part of that aforementioned narrative was India’s batting is far superior to that of South Africa’s and while the bowlers from either side would rule the roost, the series will be decided eventually on which side bats better. Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill injuries before the series did push India back, so did the unavailability of Ravindra Jadeja. For South Africa too, they lost the services of Anrich Nortje before the series and their best batter Quinton de Kock (after the first Test) to retirement. Yet, such had been India’s bowling prowess in the last four years that India’s batting was not really under any sort of scrutiny, despite the fact that India’s middle-order has averaged 34.85 in away matches since 2018. Not a great average if you consider India’s no 3, 4 and 5 are Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane respectively. But, heading into the series India had Bumrah, Shami, Mohammad Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur and Ravichandran Ashwin. In the last four years, Indian bowlers have had the best average among Test-playing nations at 24.03. The next best was South Africa with 27.24. Clearly, this was the battle of equals when it came to bowling.

And the first Test reaffirmed the narrative with India’s first-ever victory in Centurion and that too by a massive margin of 113 runs. And for all the fiery spells from Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Shami and Bumrah, KL Rahul’s 123 helped him earn the Man of the Match award. India scored 327 and 174 and bundled out the hosts twice under 200.

South Africa looked quite listless heading into Johannesburg, and India had all the momentum. The tourists managed 202 and 266, South Africa made 229 and 243/3 and edged past India. Once again, Rabada, Thakur, Marco Jansen, Ngidi bowled with venom, but it was Dean Elgar, a batter yet again, walking away with the plaudits.

In the third, India’s scores were 223 and 198. SA made 210 and 212/3 to claim the win and with that the series. For the third time in the series, the Man of the Match award went to a batter, Petersen, despite a Bumrah five-for in the first innings and 7-wicket match haul for Rabada. Unlike in 2018, the difference in the team scores wasn’t much, and despite a stellar bowling performance through the series, it was a case of batting letting India down this series. An extra 40-50 runs in both the first and second Test matches would have titled the series in India’s favour. And when it comes to series like this, such closely fought ones, it is always, always about the fine margins and those precious extra runs that make the difference.

However, this is not to say that the difference-maker in the series were South African batters. Definitely not. But, the likes of the resolute Elgar, a star in the making in Petersen and Bavuma did just enough, and certainly a tad better than their more famed and experienced counterparts to back up their bowlers.

Rahul’s 123, Rishabh Pant’s 100*, Kohli’s 79, Mayank Agarwal’s 60, fifties from Rahane and Pujara, crucial 40s from Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari were nothing short of good and top quality innings, but what Indians lacked was that one defining knock similar to the majestic 153 from Kohli in Centurion; or the whirlwind 96 from Hardik Pandya at Cape Town from the 2018 series.

What India lacked was the one batter having a series cut above the rest. On the back of his 79, Kohli will return from this series with the top average for India – 40.25, while Rahul and Pant – with their centuries – take their average to close to 38. Rahane, Pujara and Agarwal end the tour with below-par averages in the early 20s. For South Africa, Bavuma finished with 67, Elgar with 47 and Petersen with 46. In the bowling charts as well, the hosts pipped India with Rabada, Ngidi and Jansen occupying the top three spots in terms of wickets taken and bowling averages for the series.

This was a closely fought series and India did remarkably well to put their opponents on the backfoot. Credit to Elgar and his team who showed the gumption and character to take the fight to Kohli and Co., but this was a big opportunity missed by India and by Kohli the skipper to add to the legacy of India’s domination overseas. Tough questions will be asked when India return home with Pujara and Rahane being at the forefront of it. Kohli’s own form will be up for debate as well and a general consensus would be that the run machine is past his prime. Pant’s performance with the gloves was a bright spot throughout the series, so was Thakur’s all-round efforts and Siraj’s energy. Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav will return to India uncertain of their future, while Bumrah and Shami will feel the burden and disappointment of missing out on fulfilling the narrative.

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