Washout in South Africa: Mistakes that led Team India to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Despite having a battery of fast bowlers and winning the toss in each of the three Tests, India opted to bat first. That was a mistake, feels Madan Lal

Washout in South Africa: Mistakes that led Team India to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory
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Qaiser Mohammad Ali

So gung-ho was Sunil Gavaskar about India’s prospects in the Test series against South Africa that he had predicted a 3-0 whitewash in favour of Virat Kohli’s team. But, as the results show, South Africa shocked India 2-1 in a magnificent come-from-behind effort. The hosts also surprised India in the three-match One-day International series, winning it 3-0.

Even former South Africa captain Ali Bacher had predicted that India were the favourites in the Test series. “India are good, sure. They are good because they have good fast bowlers. By and large, in Centurion and Johannesburg, they have developed pitches that have a lot of bounce, and fast bowlers generally do well there. In my opinion, India will start favourites for the Test series,” Bacher, also a former Managing Director of the United Cricket Board, had told National Herald before the Test series had begun.

After making a promising start with a 113-run win in the first Test under Virat Kohli’s captaincy, India’s prospects were doomed after the skipper dramatically pulled out of the second Test citing back spasm, after he missed the customary presecond Test press conference the previous day. K.L. Rahul, who led the team, lost the second Test in Johannesburg, and even Kohli’s return for the third Test couldn’t prevent Dean Elgar’s South Africa from winning in Cape Town.

The 1-2 defeat means that a Test series triumph in South Africa continues to elude India, 30 years after having first toured that country. South Africa rubbed salt in India’s wounds by winning the ODI series 3-0, a clean sweep.

“There were many reasons for India not performing well. They made several mistakes: team selection, batsmen playing irresponsible shots, not taking bold decisions. If you have a [good] bowling attack then you should have made the opposition bat first on a fresh pitch after winning the toss. And if you cannot score 200 or 300 runs then it’s your fault,” former India all-rounder Madan Lal told National Herald. India had won the toss in all three Tests and batted first.

Kohli’s absence of roaring form by his standards contributed to the team’s undoing – his highest in the Tests was 79 – and it was obvious that there was something not right with the team. Batting let India down in all three matches, with India’s highest innings total being 327, in the first innings of the first Test. South Africa won despite their highest total (243/3) being lower than India’s (327) in the low-scoring series. However, the home team showed the resolve and determination in abundance to win, something that was missing in the Indian camp. Apart from Kohli in the middle order, Chesteshwar Pujara (124 runs in 3 Tests, with highest being 53) and Ajinkya Rahane (136 in series, highest 58) let the team down.

Bowlers were the redeeming feature for India. Pacer Mohammed Shami was the pick of the attack with 14 wickets at 21.00 average while Shardul Thakur (19.08) and Jasprit Bumrah (23.41) bagged 12 scalps each. “It [defeat] was not the fault of the bowlers; it was of the batsmen,” says Madan Lal.

It seems off-field events occupied the mind space of the Indians and affected the concentration. With the advantage of hindsight, India’s preparations had begun on the wrong foot. To understand India’s undoing in South Africa it is important to comprehend the chronology of events that started even before the team had left the Indian shores.

It all began with Kohli announcing a month before the T20 World Cup, held in October-November, that he would quit T20 captaincy and desired to lead in the other two formats. The selectors, in consultation with the BCCI top brass, removed him from ODI captaincy too, and Kohli reacted typically in-the-face manner in his customary pre-departure press conference – and justifiably so. Clearly, the seeds of discord in the team were well and truly sown, and the captain, by all accounts, was not entirely responsible for it.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India, surprised by the guts Kohli showed in calling a spade a spade in the press conference, added to the woes of the team by preventing the captain from addressing the media for some time in South Africa, including the mandatory captains’ briefing at the start of the first and second Tests. And that BCCI decision could have further annoyed Kohli and added to the schism between him and the Board. In the event, Kohli missed the second Test, though he returned for the third when he was finally allowed to address the pre-Test media conference.


“Virat didn’t look happy. He had told them that he was keen to captain India in ODIs and Tests. I think that might have played on his mind, though only he knows the best reason [for being unhappy]. My only point is that if he didn’t want Test captaincy, he should have announced it after returning to India,” feels Madan Lal.

When pointed out that Gavaskar had also quit captaincy overseas, in Australia, after winning the Benson & Hedges World Championship of Cricket in 1985, Madan Lal, a member of that team, said that he did so at the end of the tournament.

With a relatively new coaching staff to work with, Kohli was obviously going to take time to settle down with coach Rahul Dravid and his team. And, then, BCCI politics made things more difficult for Kohli. Anyway, Kohli is now captaincy-free and can concentrate on his game. The big question, however, is: Will he attain normalcy soon enough and focus on his batting and fielding that has taken him to great heights?

Only time will tell.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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