South Africa's long and winding road trip began in end-September. Since then formats have changed, results have changed, and captains have changed. And while the Twenty20 series seem an eternity away, it is worth a recall that India lost both matches rather convincingly. The ODIs were more closely fought but India lost that series too, 2-3. Over to the one-sided Test series, and India won it 3-0, with rain saving the Proteas in Bangalore, as it saved India in the third T20 in Kolkata.
The most glaring difference is the captaincy. A bearded Virat Kohli for a stubbled MS Dhoni. Facial hair aside, it's the apparent difference between new beginnings and tired endings. Dhoni's defeat in the ODI series in Bangladesh was followed by a long break from international cricket. Meanwhile, India under Kohli beat Sri Lanka in a Test series after god knows how many years.
India was playing Test cricket after six months and Kohli continued his century-making romp Down Under with a yet another tonne at Galle. His centuries stood at 11; his grasp of form, his grip on the team, his embrace with team director Ravi Shastri tighter than ever. And even though the Indians lost the first Test at Galle, they bounced back, winning the series 2-1. R Ashwin was Man of the series.
Ashwin was largely unavailable for the ODI series against South Africa bowling just 4.4 overs in the first match. An Ashwin-less India saw left-handed South African opener, Quinton de Kock, cracking two hundreds, the second in the decisive fifth ODI. Ashwin returned for the Test series, with his side strain sorted. Thirty-one wickets later, he was the Man of the series again.
Then there are the travails of Umesh Yadav, played two ODIs under Dhoni, and was bashed for runs in both. In the first Test against South Africa in Mohali, Yadav had little to do, bowling just nine overs in the entire match. He only returned for the fourth Test in Delhi, bowling as if he had been possessed by Kohli and Shastri's new found belief in him.
Forget spraying the ball down leg and bowling boundary balls every over, this avatar of Yadav was clocking maidens like Mr Modi clocks flying miles. Suspect in that one spell he put down more maidens than he had in his entire Test career – out of 21 overs, this thrifty new Yadav bowled 16 maidens. His wicket of Dane Vilas was followed with two more, breaking a stump and the Proteas' resistance.
Yadav was an unlikely inclusion, picked instead of third spinner, Amit Mishra, and after this Test, one hopes he will be as much his own man as he has now shown himself to be Kohli's go-to man.
Ravindra Jadeja did not make the T20s and ODIs under Dhoni. Harbhajan Singh, Axar Patel and Amit Mishra, however, did. Jadeja returned to the Indian squad in the Tests under Kohli. Eight wickets in the first Test (as many as Ashwin) a vital 38 runs, and suddenly, Jadeja was booked for the rest of the series.
He emerged as Ashwin's chief accomplice, and had accounted for players like Hashim Amla, de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. On the last morning of a long, unending block by Amla, one that threatened to draw the Test, it was Jadeja's dip and drift that whisked past the bat and cannoned into off stump. The seemingly immovable Amla was felled 289 minutes and 244 balls later.
It's hard to quantify the timing of Jadeja's wickets, they came when you least expected them; they brought with them dread, both of the pitch and of the bowler. This was as much his series as Ashwin's, and the man of the series could well have been given to Ravichandran Ravindra.
Jadeja was Kohli's go-to man.
As was Ajinkya Rahane. Two centuries were scored in 14 innings and one man got them both in one Test. That man, more than any perhaps, is and will be Kohli's go-to guy. Both overseas and at home. Even more so because he isn't Dhoni's guy at all.
As for Dhoni, it's a time for reflection. The World T20 is round the corner. Eight years back, this tournament made Dhoni. What he does in the next few months could define him in our memories. It is never too late for one last gamble, Mahi. Make it a big one, like you did on that magical night on September, 24, 2007. You still have two players from that night. An opener, Rohit Sharma, and a finisher, yourself. It's not over...
First published here