India have lost Test matches overseas previously. Lost them badly. Lost them with plenty to spare – plenty of days, plenty of time. But this one will rankle for a long, long time. As it well should.
India, experienced India, the No. 1 Test side in the world, quietly confident of breaking their series duck in South Africa, received a proper shellacking at SuperSport Park in Centurion in the first Test. Cold statistics alone will suffice to present the extent of the carnage – South Africa’s margin of victory was an innings and 32 runs, attained on the third evening, with what essentially was a 10-man side after Temba Bavuma, their captain, no less, was laid low by a left hamstring strain on the first afternoon. It was a throwback to the 1990s when India were lambs to the slaughter on sojourns out of the subcontinent, when fans watched with trepidation as one horror show after another unfolded in Australia and England, New Zealand and West Indies and South Africa. Even Zimbabwe.
India’s first innings lasted 66 overs, which yielded 245 runs. That was par for the course, perhaps slightly more, given the challenges that confronted them – a fresh, spicy deck that had sweated under the covers, miserably dark overhead conditions with nasty clouds hanging low, a battery of tall fast bowlers led by Kagiso Rabada that could exploit the spongy bounce, and the fact that three of the top six were on their first Test tour of South Africa. But who knew then that that would be as good as it got for Rohit Sharma’s side?
Days two and three, or whatever play was possible in them, ruthlessly exposed India’s shortcomings, first with the ball and then with the bat. In barely better batting conditions than on day one, South Africa amassed 408; Dean Elgar, the obstinate opener whose bread-and-butter is the nurdled single and the stolen two, smashed 28 fours on his way to 185, debutant David Bedingham breezed to an 87-ball 56 and No. 7 Marco Jansen produced a career-best unbeaten 84 against an Indian attack bereft of imagination or support to the tireless Jasprit Bumrah. As Rohit pointed out after the match, this wasn’t a 408-run surface. Not by a long way.
Having conceded so many and fallen behind by 163, one would have expected India to put up a fight. Show bottle. Spunk. Spirit. Feisty combativeness. Heart, to put it simply. Instead, the second innings was an ungainly procession, a stride to the middle and a stutter back to the dressing room. There were good deliveries, sure, but they were overshadowed by loose strokes that portrayed scant regard for the conditions or the quality of the opposition bowling.
India have many players playing in South Africa for the first time, but South Africa themselves had an inexperienced side too – Bedingham and Nandre Burger were in their first Test, batters Tony de Zorzi and Keegan Petersen were playing their third and 12th Tests respectively, and pacer Gerald Coetzee had two previous Test caps. If they could adjust to the demands of Test cricket effortlessly, shouldn’t the Indians have done better? Especially given that they have vast experience of other international formats?
India’s second-innings effort with the bat was particularly disappointing. To last just 34.1 overs in which they managed a meagre 131 runs made for painful viewing, a succession of ill-advised strokes contributing to their own downfall. South Africa were on point and kept asking questions, but they really needn’t have bothered. India’s batters came bearing Christmas gifts in keeping with the festive season and South Africa gleefully accepted those gifts, grateful for the two extra days’ rest ahead of the final game in Cape Town from January 3.
Rohit’s countenance when he fronted the media after the disastrous whipping presented a window to his mind. He seemed a touch perplexed and bemused at the dramatic turn of his events, but the overwhelming emotion was utter disappointment, maybe even a tinge of sadness. He knows he and the management group have a tough task ahead of them in the next few days leading up to Cape Town. Lessons must be learnt from this debacle, for sure, but it’s imperative, as he himself pointed out, to leave this defeat behind and not carry it to Cape Town. India have won one Test in four of their last five visits to South Africa and while the Final Frontier will remain unconquered this time around too, a drawn series and crucial World Test Championship points are still on the line. Not to mention the pride in performance that every sportsperson worth their salt is invested in.