South Africa continues to be the 'Final Frontier' for Team India as the Proteas pulled off a seven-wicket win in the third and final Test at Cape Town on Friday to clinch the hard-fought series 2-1. It was a splendid fightback by the hosts after they were outplayed in the opening Test at Centurion by Virat Kohli and Co. Both the second and third Tests were a lot closer than the winning margin of seven wickets suggested.
The senior pros Dean Elgar and Kagiso Rabada raised their game at the crunch while rookies Keegan Petersen and Marco Jansen grew in stature as the series progressed. Temba Bavuma, who took the Proteas home on both occasions, was easily the most consistent batter in a series dominated by the fast bowlers.
Elgar led from the front with admirable resolve. He rallied the team and showed a big heart to chase down tricky targets in both the second and third Tests. Rabada produced a game-changing spell right before the lunch break on the third day of the second Test at the Wanderers when he removed Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant. Rabada was menacing at Newlands in the series decider. He claimed 20 wickets in the series while fellow pacer Lungi Ngidi scalped 15.
Petersen produced vital knocks in both the second and third Tests. The right-hander looks a classy player. Jansen more than made up for the absence of quickie Anrich Nortje. The lanky left-armer troubled the India batters with his bounce and angle. Nineteen wickets in his debut series and a cameo in the first innings at the Wanderers went a long way in the home side emerging victors.
It was a case of so near, yet so far for India. The brittle Indian batting line-up meant the visitors failed to conquer South Africa for the eighth successive tour spread over a little over 29 years. The 1-1 result under M S Dhoni in 2010-11 remains India's best performance in South Africa while they have lost all the other seven series.
India's convincing win in the opener at SuperSport Park had given the hope that they will break the jinx this time. But it was not to be and the poor show of the batters put India on the back foot. India failed to reach the 270-run mark in five attempts after making 327 in the first innings of the opening Test. One can't expect to win Test matches after getting bowled out for less than 250 on the opening day.
In fact barring the opening day of the series, when they made 272/3, it was a real struggle for the Indian batting unit. Kohli scored a patient 79 in the first innings in the decider, while Pant scored a memorable unbeaten 100 in the second knock to keep India in the hunt at Newlands. Rahul's hundred set up the Indian win at Centurion, while Pujara and Rahane scored gutsy fifties in the second innings of the second Test. However, the Indian batting failed to fire collectively and it left the bowlers with too much to do in both the second and third Tests. Once South Africa got off to decent starts, the Indian bowling attack failed to apply pressure on the batters despite the conditions favouring them.
Kohli, head coach Rahul Dravid and the selectors have to take some tough calls. Rahane appears thin on confidence and needs a break badly. The Mumbaikar will be the first to admit that the team management has supported him to the hilt. There have been vital knocks from Rahane, but they have been too few and far. With Pujara too struggling for consistency, India can ill-afford to field both in the line-up. Hanuma Vihari, who was drafted into the eleven in place of an unfit Kohli in the second Test, showcased his skills yet again. It was the first Test for the Andhra batter, almost a year after saving the Sydney Test along with R Ashwin. Vihari has the technique and temperament to serve India for a long term and he needs to be given chances at home as well and not just in tough overseas assignments.
Team selection was an area of concern during the Kohli-Ravi Shastri partnership and the early indications are that Dravid will have to convince Kohli to adopt a horses for courses policy. India need to rethink the five-bowler theory. The so-called all-rounders Ashwin and Shardul Thakur failed to produce even a single fifty in six innings. Ashwin hardly looked a threat with the ball in the entire series. Agreed, the conditions were seamer-friendly and South African spinner Keshav Maharaj too made little impact on the Indian batters. No one is expecting Ashwin to pick up wickets in a heap abroad, but a seasoned spinner should make his presence felt at least in the fourth innings.
India will be better off playing six specialist batters plus Pant and four bowlers in SENA conditions. Whether the bowling attack should consist of four seamers or three seamers plus a lone spinner has to be decided depending on the surface. In short, India have to be flexible with their strategies.
The way the Indians conducted themselves during the series left a lot to be desired. Mohammed Siraj was boorish in his behaviour in the first two Tests and the way Kohli, his deputy Rahul and Ashwin responded after a DRS call went against them during a crucial phase of the Cape Town Test showed the Indian team in a bad light. The Indians lost their composure after the incident and Elgar and Petersen were quick to make the most of it by scoring runs at a fair clip.
Elgar and his team can be proud of keeping their home record intact. As for India they are a good team, but no way near to be even compared to the all-conquering West Indies or the great Australian sides of the past.