How long are eight days? Long enough to open the old wounds, send all talks of revenge to the nearest trash-can, and leave the top-ranked Test team hanging by the precipice, clutching what remains of the invisible pride.
Pride. It’s a wonderful word; easy on ears, lyrical on tongue. It has gravitas and depth. It is known to trigger redemption, retribution, and resurgence (Perth 2008, anyone?). It’s also pretty much everything that this Virat Kohli-led Indian team has not been on this trip. And yet, it happens to be the only thing they are left to play for, and possibly, with.
Amid all the hustle about team combinations and debates around what-ifs, the chest-thumping bravado of a side that has won each of its last nine Test series is suddenly a distant memory. Lest we forget, it’s the same team that ended South Africa’s nine-year unbeaten run away from home on made-to-order tracks in 2015, and not long ago, was a well-oiled machinery that powered away without a glitch. But what a difference has eight days of cricket in South Africa made.
There were signs of snags — Rajkot in 2016 (where England gave them a mighty scare in last session of the day), Pune in 2017 (where they were beaten at their own game by a sublime second innings ton by Steve Smith), and Bengaluru in 2017 (where KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane's fifties in the second innings saved them), but by and large, things looked fine. Add to it, the general euphoria around the ego-boosting mauling of Sri Lanka — though Kolkata Test once again bared India's storied weaknesses against seam and swing — and the stage looked set for a date with history.
So when Kohli arrived on South African shores with a reputation to preserve and a promise to fulfill, one thought he had the arsenal to last the long haul. But call it the result of succumbing to one’s own hype, or the sheer lack of skill, the team has revealed cracks that the successful home run over the course of two seasons had delicately glossed over.
From opening combinations to middle-order’s ineptitude to wicket-keeping to catching, the team’s vulnerabilities have been ruthlessly exposed. Couple this with Kohli’s arcane choices of playing XIs, and we have a situation where the team is left pondering over what could have been.
It might not be too far-fetched to conclude that besides being short of confidence, the squad is also an insecure lot; not knowing who would get the axe and on what basis. No amount of pep-talk, back channel banter or words of wisdom can replace the confidence that a player gets by simply getting picked up in the XI, and one fears if Kohli's Claudio Ranieri-style tinkerman tactics may end up doing more harm than good.
That apart, India would be brooding over the collective failure of their vaunted batting order. Barring the skipper, no batsman has looked in control and there appears a comprehensive misreading of Kohli's call for intent. Murali Vijay and Pujara, two of the most technically solid batsmen in the team, have, more than once, fallen in uncharacteristic fashions. While Vijay has shown the tendency to walk towards his off-stump to cover the away swing but has ended up being done in by the inswinger, Pujara has found novel ways of getting out. He played an inexplicable shot away from body on the first ball after lunch in Cape Town and was caught, and ran himself out in each innings of the next Test in Centurion. Skipper Kohli believes Rohit Sharma can change the game in a session, but on a tour where India wanted their one-day wonder to come good, Sharma, once again, flattered to deceive.
He has failed to address the issue of his falling head, which meant that in spite of him having a short front-foot stride, he keeps getting beaten on the inside edge. In a team that plays only five frontline batsmen, as is the case with India, such failures can, and actually inevitably have, proved costlier.
This has been a tough series for batsmen from both sides, as the solitary century indicates. But while India have been almost entirely reliant on Kohli, South Africa have found someone to score tough runs even as AB de Villiers has sought to take the game away with his attacking strokeplay.
In the first Test, it was Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada, and in the second, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, du Plessis and Dean Elgar chipped in with important runs. India, apart from lone hands from Hardik Pandya in Cape Town and skipper Kohli in Centurion, have little to show by way of contributions. Alarmingly, batsmen such as Vijay and Ashwin have got out after getting the odd starts, thanks to poor shot selections. Ajinkya Rahane, team's most accomplished overseas batsman by a distance, is likely to finally get a game in Johannesburg, and the team dearly missed his solidity in the lower-middle order.
These shortcomings apart, it would be wrong to say that India have not competed, or they haven't had their chances. In a first, the bowling — pacers in particular — have created opportunities, and in a long time, India's fast bowlers have had the opposition on the defence. Their fault: they have let South Africa off the hook. After having them three down for 12 runs on the first morning of the Cape Town Test, they went overboard with attack, and conceded a flurry of boundaries which ultimately proved fatal. Dropped catches haven't helped either, and the team needs to tighten the loose ends to avoid a very real threat of whitewash.
This is an unusual space for Virat Kohli, the skipper. For a captain who has won almost everything so far, staring at the possibility of a humiliating whitewash is naturally upsetting, which somehow explains his bristling answers to legitimate queries. The onus is on him to lift the morale of the dejected team, and exhort them for one final push. It is a long overseas season, and getting too bogged down with the first reversal would be far from ideal.
As a batsman, however, it is not for the first time that the team is looking up to Kohli. Not for the first time is he the sole performer in the side; memory does jog back to India's ill-fated tour Down Under in 2011-12, when he returned as the only centurion — and bright spot — in a team full of fading superstars. That innings, and the stunning 86-ball 133 against Sri Lanka in the following One-Day International (ODI) series, turned his career around, and now, at the fag end of the Test series, he would look for a similar spark to turn his fortunes around.
Eight days can certainly be a long time, as Kohli would have figured out, but much rests on the five days that he will be taking the field on. It's much more than a dead rubber. It is about pride.