A tour that began with anticipation of a maiden Test series win in South Africa has turned into a disaster for India. They lost the Test series 1-2 after taking a series lead in Centurion and have now lost the ODI series as well with a match left.
The third ODI at a bright and sunny Newlands in Cape Town on Sunday is inconsequential from a series perspective, but India—in churn with the change in leadership—can't treat it as such. They were outplayed in both the ODIs in Paarl and have to use every game to plug the gaping holes ahead of the 2023 World Cup in India.
Four years back, when India lost the Test series by a similar margin, they responded emphatically by winning a six-match ODI series 5-1. Barring the odd individual performance, there has been no such spark visible on this tour.
In the second ODI on Friday, India batted first on a used pitch that got slower as the game wore on. India had suffered batting second in the opening ODI when a slow surface played its part in crippling their chase of 297. But when it was South Africa's turn to chase a target of 288, they showed how it ought to be done.
Quinton de Kock got SA off to a rollicking start with a 66-ball 78 and an opening stand of 132 in 22 overs with Janneman Malan (91) and the rest of the batters kept up the tempo right through. Even when they lost two wickets in six balls in the middle phase, the incoming batters were never under pressure of the asking rate.
Contrast this with India's approach with the bat. It continues to be a tad archaic at a time when teams like England—the 50-over world champions—are pushing the boundaries and revising par totals. As Rishabh Pant showed with 85 off 71 balls on Friday, India do have the players in that attacking mould, but there needs to be a more concerted effort as a batting group. Otherwise, their recent slide—nine defeats in the last 14 completed games—may continue.
The difference in approaches was exemplified by how India played the part-time spin of Aiden Markram as against South Africa's treatment of ace off-spinner R Ashwin. The Indian batters afforded utmost respect to Markram's gentle off-breaks, allowing him to get away with 1/34 from 8 overs at an economy of 4.25. Stand-in skipper KL Rahul was content with nudging ones and twos during his 79-ball 55, despite the ball turning into his hitting arc, perhaps influenced by his dismissal in the opening ODI.
De Kock was also dismissed by Ashwin in the first game, but it didn't have any bearing on the opener's outlook. He went after the veteran spinner, never allowing him to dictate terms. He was reprieved when Pant missed a regulation stumping in the eighth over, but the left-hander dispatched the next ball for six over deep square-leg.
Bowling a concern too
India's bowling has also let them down. They have taken just seven wickets in nearly 100 overs in the two games, one of which was a run out.
During the 2018 ODI series win in South Africa, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal played a pivotal role, emerging the top two wicket-takers with 17 and 16 scalps respectively. The two wrist-spinners kept pegging the Proteas back with wickets through the middle overs. Since then, Yadav has fallen out of favour—he is on a comeback after knee surgery in September—and Chahal's wicket-taking ability has taken a hit.
Chahal's figures of 10-0-53-0 and 10-0-47-1 in the two games are respectable, but the team wouldn't mind the leggie going for a few more runs in exchange for breakthroughs.
"The South African spinners have been more consistent in their lines and lengths. We haven't taken enough wickets in the middle-overs. They have done that. That has been the main difference in both the matches. We could have bowled a little better in the middle-overs and also batted much better in the middle overs," Pant told reporters after the second ODI.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar's issues with the new ball have compounded matters. With the ball not swinging, his trundling medium-pace has held no threat, resulting in 18 wicketless overs for 131 runs.
Kumar could make way for Deepak Chahar on Sunday. Batters Ruturaj Gaikwad, Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan and seamer Prasidh Krishna will also be eager to get a look-in before India return home. While ringing in the changes may not solve India's white-ball problems, a massive opportunity would be lost if some of these players don't get a chance to see how they measure up in South African conditions.