The Centurion debacle: A throwback Thursday India didn’t need | Cricket

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India have been a bit of an outlier to the global trend of teams finding it increasingly difficult to win Test series away from home when up against an opposition that have a good recent record as hosts. Since 2015, they have recorded series wins in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, West Indies and, most notably, Australia. Many argue that they would’ve added England to this list had it not been for the fact that the last day of the first Test of the series in 2021 was washed out and the last Test itself was postponed to next year, by which time the hosts had turned a corner in the format.

India's batting lineup collapsed in a heap in the second innings(REUTERS)
India’s batting lineup collapsed in a heap in the second innings(REUTERS)

South Africa and New Zealand were the countries that they failed to breach and among them, the former stood out as the one where India have never been able to win a Test series. Interestingly, both the last tour and the ongoing one were seen as India’s best chance at breaking that duck. While they lost 2-1 last time around, their chances of recording a win has been extinguished after the first Test itself, which lasted less than three days.

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And yet, neither of those two losses were as glaring as the defeat India suffered in Centurion this week. Perhaps it is because of the fact that India never really seemed to be in this match for much of it and it had become an uphill struggle for them after the first half of the second session on Day 2 itself. Perhaps it is also because now we have enough of a sample size of results to indicate a worrying regression – this was India’s fifth consecutive defeat in Tests played in South Africa, England, New Zealand or Australia, also known as the SENA countries.

It is a run that started with a seven-wicket loss to South Africa in Johannesburg in their previous tour of the country, followed by another seven-wicket loss to the Proteas in Cape Town. They then lost to England by seven wickets in the postponed fifth Test of the 2021 tour at Edgbaston. That was followed by a 209-run defeat to Australia at The Oval in the World Test Championship (WTC) final and now, they have lost to South Africa by an innings and 32 runs.

Make no mistake, India did suffer heavy defeats during the last WTC cycles. The most notable ones would be the formerly infamous 8-wicket loss to Australia in the Pink-Ball Test in Adelaide in December 2020. We all know which one that is, it has a number 36 attached to it. For Indian fans though, it is probably attached with happy thoughts because of the remarkable, miraculous fightback that the team staged in the rest of the series to record a second consecutive series win in Australia against all kinds of odds. Then there is the loss by an innings and 76 runs at Headingley to England in August 2021. That one though, was sandwiched between two results that showed just how far ahead India were at the time compared to England in Test cricket.

The Centurion defeat feels worse than either of them and there are quite a few statistics to show just why that might be the case. The most glaring is the fact that for all the talk of India turning a corner away from home in the longest format, never has the margin of defeat in a Test match in South Africa been so big. The previous worst defeat for India in the country was when they lost by an innings and 25 runs in December 2010 in Centurion. India’s batters below number five put up a combined 16 runs in the second innings, which is the third worst by any Indian team in the 146-year history of Test cricket. Even when they were all out for 36 runs in that match against Australia in Adelaide, their lower half contributed more than they did in Centurion, as did the lower halves of all those Indian teams in the past who rarely ever saw victory as an option when they played a Test match away from home.

It has to be remembered that India did miss a lot of the elements that played a major role in their good run of form away from home in SENA nations in the recent past. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane were not included in this squad and the former’s No.3 was taken up by Shubman Gill. Opener Yashasvi Jaiswal was the other new kid on the block in this team while Shreyas Iyer took up Rahane’s No.5 spot. Whether these players can fill the big shoes left by the two stalwarts is a question that can only be answered by future performances but what should really worry India is that there now seems to be an uncomfortably big drop in quality and effectiveness in their pace department after Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami.

As stated earlier, this game became an uphill struggle for India in the second session of the second day itself. Well that is because Dean Elgar and Tony De Zorzi plundered more than 40 runs in its first half in which Rohit Sharma decided to start with debutant Prasidh Krishna and all-rounder Shardul Thakur instead of giving the ball to Siraj and Bumrah. Bumrah, Siraj and Ashwin bowled 69.4 overs for 201 runs and seven wickets. However, Thakur and Prasidh went for 194 for 2 in 39 overs. This is in stark contrast to when it would be Ishant Sharma or Umesh Yadav backing up the strike pacers and both players had an integral role in India’s recent victories away from home, particularly in Australia.

Progress is the name of the game in sports and India breaking a number of stereotypes associated with them in Test cricket was seen as a welcome sign of progression. They developed one of the most lethal pace attacks in the world, and became a difficult side to beat in any conditions, both of which are traits not historically associated with Indian Test teams. But the defeat in Centurion is a hark back to rather unhappy days for Indian fans. Everyone loves a good throwback but this was one that they did not need.

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