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Why all's not well that ends well

by Gaurav Sethi

India needs to make fresh mistakes for a change. It’s the only way this bunch will grow into a brave new world-beating team overseas.

It’s a matter of concern, if after all these overseas’ tours, India refuses to learn from its mistakes – and those made by the people in charge before. To brush the series defeat under a silk Kashmiri carpet, which could well be the stunning win at Johannesburg, is all too convenient. And while a couple of days are necessary for players and fans to bask in the sunny glow of this win, we all would do well to address the bitter cold of the 2-1 defeat.

In many ways, this was a series that almost walked up to this Indian team, and said, “I’m all yours, baby, you can have me, in three days if you want”. What India mistook this big, bold message as, for reasons best known to them was, “land up in South Africa and play Test cricket prompto!” After the hanging out and shopping, of course.

You’d think, that by now, there would be an appreciation of the demands of Test cricket by the world’s best against the world’s best – that too in their den. But India has, for way too long, been partying so hard at home, they forgot what it was to travel. Other than on holiday.

South Africa was always going to be a tough tour. Just as India is always a tough tour for South Africa. Playing Sri Lanka as prep on a loop is far from ideal. It would be akin to South Africa mauling Zimbabwe in their own backyard before a series in the subcontinent.

That the BCCI continues to get away with such shenanigans is shocking. In spite of the apparent disruptions in its functioning, India’s cricket Board pretty much functions as it did before – be it Mr. Rajeev Shukla holding court at the IPL Auctions or itineraries being drawn out at a whim.

In spite of all this, India had South Africa on the mat at 12/3. Bhuvneshwar Kumar had the top order in the blink of an eye. In the blink of an eye, AB de Villiers had Bhuvi for 17 runs in an over. But much before that, India picked Rohit Sharma for Ajinkya Rahane, whose overseas’ record speaks for both him and his Mumbai mate.

It wasn’t very different from going into an overseas’ Test series without any warm-up games. These two aspects of the tour are not about to die out soon. And they should not be allowed to. Whether they cost India the series, we’ll never know, but they cost India an obvious edge – and when the team itself gives up on an edge, for not just one Test but two, then it must have its head examined.

So after its two warm up matches which also turned out to be the first two Tests – India decided to correct not just one wrong but two. For reasons best known to them, they topped the Rohit-inclusion with a Bhuvi-exclusion. In Joburg, armed with Bhuvi again, India knifed through the Protea top order again.

Surely the team management must know – you don’t drop your best bowler. Not for promising Bumrah, not for unlucky Ishant, not for second innings’ Shami, not for partly there Pandya, not for athletic Ashwin. Yet the conditions kept Bhuvi out. It was as if India had returned home for the second Test, and suddenly he wasn’t even good enough to be the fifth bowler.

This is where both Kohli and Shastri misread both the conditions and their bowlers. They underestimated Bhuvi, and expected too much of Pandya. Their thinking was flawed, as they continued to go with their own muddled logic which is largely based on limited overs’ numbers and accomplishments. Bhuvi didn’t play, partly for the same reasons that Rohit played.

Yet in Bhuvi, unknown to them, they had the allrounder they continued to look for in Pandya. From 92/7 in Cape Town, the Pandya-Bhuvi partnership added 99 runs. Pandya had two chances, his 93(95) was the finest art of deception in the series. Bhuvi’s stoic 25(86) was the glue that made Pandya’s attack possible. Comparisons with Kapil Dev were inevitable. Pandya’s 93 in one innings was followed by 26 runs in five innings. Worse, some of the dismissals were either of a tailender on heat or an IPL bully gone bonkers, not yet ready for the rigours of Test cricket overseas. As for Bhuvi, his 25 was followed by a 13 not out in the second innings, and a 30 and a 33 in the third Test. There was enough intent in Bhuvi to bat it all out, and not just throw it all away with a wild swing.

Soon enough, comparisons of Pandya with Kapil Dev ceased, not least from the man himself. Pandya summed his series with carelessness, that extended from not grounding his bat to missing the stumps when they were well within kissing distance. Like Rohit, was Pandya too out of his comfort zone? Had Kohli and Shastri expected way too much from them? Had there been a fourth Test match, would either have made the playing XI?

India competed throughout the series but lost vital sessions. Most definitive when AB de Villiers counterattacked Bhuvi and none of the support caste stepped up. To Pandya’s credit, he scalped three top order batsmen in the first Test, but went at close to 4.50 runs per over, and in a series that was as much about wickets as about the squeeze on scoring, his captain rapidly lost confidence in his bowling. He did not take another wicket in the series. After bowling 18 overs in the first Test, Pandya bowled 33 more in the four innings that followed.

But this is only Pandya’s second Test series, before this he had only played Sri Lanka, scoring his maiden century and fifty. Compared to Pandya’s six Tests, Virat Kohli has now played in 66, captaining in more than half; Ravi Shastri played 80 Tests. Both captain and coach appear to be on the same page. Which can be both a good thing and a not so good thing. When the team makes obvious mistakes even before stepping on to the park, questions need to be asked – and the two men that call the shots need to answer them.

Maybe not to the press or on twitter but at least to themselves. An admission of guilt can lead to some long term gains. Knowing that India had the wherewithal to be more competitive but did not use it, is a start. It could lead to not repeating the same old mistakes, and making some fresh ones for a change.

Jaspreet Bumrah on Test debut in the first Test was a move that could have backfired. Yet it was backed by a belief that he will do better than unlucky Ishant and erratic Umesh. By the third Test, he had his first five-for in Test cricket. He finished the series with 14 wickets at 25.14. The thinking to play Bumrah went against conventional wisdom. Then again, convention isn’t going to win you a Test series in South Africa. A little wisdom however, could go a long way. As no doubt both Kohli and Shastri have learnt. The hard way as it turns out.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, All’s not well that ends well.

First published here

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