I confess I have been a little taken aback by the successive Indian defeats in the ODIs in South Africa. I had backed the team to do well hoping that the capabilities of the young and the experience of the seniors would work in unison.
Of course the fact that Pakistan had got the better of the hosts just before Dhoni and his men landed in South Africa was a factor and I honestly believed that the Indians had it in them to do well even in the face of a dismal record in that country. I had particularly pinned my hopes on the youth brigade who play with a lot of 'josh' and are not overawed by the lofty reputation of the opposition.
Yes, I was aware of the differences in conditions, the batting beauties in India and the bouncier tracks in South Africa, the lack of preparation for a truncated tour meaning that the Indians had right away to play an international match after just a couple of days practice and the overall image of the Indians as tigers at home and lambs abroad.
But even after taking into account all these factors, it must be said that the Indians have been a grave disappointment. After all it must not be forgotten that India are No 1 in the ICC ODI rankings while South Africa are fifth and even if home advantage narrows the gap, there is no way India should go down so tamely with their confidence level high after recent encouraging performances.
Certainly a warm-up game or two would have helped and here perhaps it is the BCCI which is to be blamed. After needlessly haggling over the schedule following ego clashes, a short tour was hastily arranged just after the West Indies had left India. That tour itself was a bit of an afterthought more in the nature of giving Sachin Tendulkar a fond farewell at home.
But all this meant that the Indians would be at a bit of disadvantage while landing in South Africa. However I reckoned this would not be a major issue. With the number of tours and tournaments taking place, many Indian players have had the benefit of playing in South Africa. The India A team’s tour of that country a couple of months ago had many players in the present squad.
Dhoni did touch upon the lack of a warm-up game after the loss in the Johannesburg ODI adding that it would have helped. But the Indian captain lost no time in adding that when the schedule is known the players have to mentally prepare themselves. After all much involving cricket these days is mental.
Also while admitting that he would have liked the squad to be in South Africa for a longer period before playing the first international game, he added that it was not possible these days because the international schedule did not permit it. "We play throughout the year," said Dhoni summing up the non-stop cricketing calendar prevalent these days though the captain was honest enough to say that "you have to adapt to different conditions."
Yes, how best a touring squad adapts itself to different conditions is the key to success and here it must be said that the players failed in both ODIs. Losing a game is one thing but going down without a fight is quite another. The tourists have failed as a unit with the batting, bowling and fielding coming a cropper. If Dhoni was blaming the bowlers after the first ODI, he was blaming the batsmen after the second match.
Of course he was right both times. The bowling, always the weaker link, has just come apart in South Africa. As Dhoni put it succinctly after the Johannesburg defeat, "this was not a 300-plus wicket." There was enough in the surface to help the bowlers but while the South Africans made full use of it, the Indians were found sadly lacking.
Once a total of 300-plus is conceded, the batsmen are under tremendous pressure. In batsmen friendly conditions at home, the star-studded Indian line-up has even chased down 350. However this was never going to be the case in South Africa and once a total of 358 for four was put up, only the margin of the Indian defeat was being discussed.
The bowlers obliged the batsmen by sending down the deliveries exactly where they wanted them and adaptability was woefully lacking. Whatever the surface, line and length are the two basics that a bowler has to follow and here the bowlers were found wanting.
At Durban the bowlers came back strongly after Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock put on 194 runs for the first wicket. A total of 300 beckoned and the Indians did well to restrict the South Africans to 280 though the situation could have been even better had Umesh Yadav not conceded 20 runs in the final over. The death overs are a major problem and even at Johannesburg 100 runs were conceded in the last six overs. This automatically is a setback to the morale of the side when it is their turn to bat.
But if a target of 359 was never really on the cards, 281 should have at least been approachable and this time the batsmen rightly took the rap for not even coming near it. Indeed successive totals of 217 and 146 means that the batting is almost as weak as the bowling and this poses serious problems for the visitors.
Unfortunately there seems to be no way out of the hole they have dug themselves into for they have made batting and bowling changes and nothing has worked. Perhaps the time has come to go in with a four-man pace attack for the final ODI at Centurion and drop either Ravindra Jadeja or Ravichandran Ashwin. There is no guarantee it will work but then desperate situations call for desperate measures.