When a crackerjack of an Indian pace attack bowled South Africa out for 130 at the stroke of lunch on Day 4, Team India fans all over the world started to hope. Hope to start in right earnest, their quest to create history. India had never won a Test series in the Rainbow Nation, but this team led by Virat Kohli has been in on the rampage all through the home season, and a win in the first Test in Cape Town would have put India in pole position to push for the elusive series victory. It would have been a huge boost for India's confidence and prospects in this series. But it was not to be. The Proteas mounted an almighty charge in the fourth innings and it was the same old story for the Indian team as had been for their predecessors touring this neck of the woods. The Indian batsmen were stung by the venom of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada and went down by 72 runs, which is a massive margin of victory, given that both teams struggled to get 200 on this pitch. Both teams had their moments and for often the match seemed to be hanging in the balance, but South Africa won some key battles that sealed the deal for them at the Newlands. Here are five of them:
1. Hostile Protea pacers: The target for India wasn't a massive one. Nine times out of ten, the high-profile Indian batting line-up would have fancied overhauling the 208-run target. But Philander and Co had other ideas. Philander picked up a career-best 6/42, and Morkel and Rabada chipped in with two wickets each, as India collapsed to 135. Make no mistake, the Indian bowlers were not far behind their South African counterparts, but where the Proteas scored over the former was that they put in more balls at the right place and in the right channel on a consistent basis. They generated some serious pace, bounce and movement and the Indians had no answer. The story of India's first innings wasn't any different, and at one time, India were reduced to 81/6, and had it not been for the brave fight back by Hardik Pandya and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India would have struggled to reach even 150. So good were Philander, Morkel and Rabada that the loss of Dale Steyn to a freak injury was never a factor when India had to be bowled out in the fourth innings.
2. Virat Kohli's failure: The Indian captain had been the star batsman for his side all through the extended home season, scoring hundreds and double hundreds like it was the easiest thing to do, setting up one win after another. His failure then was a killer blow for India. Kohli got out for a duck in the first innings, playing away from his body and offering a simple catch to the 'keeper. And in the second innings, as the Indian captain was looking to steady the ship, Philander brought one back to trap Kohli dead in front of his sticks. Philander set Kohli up well with a consistent line in the corridor of uncertainty outside the batsman's off-stump, with the ball shaping away from the batsman, and then came that ball that comes in. Kohli had no clue how to deal with that.
3. Poor application by the Indian batsmen overall: Not only Kohli, most of the other Indian batsmen also came a cropper when faced with a top quality pace attack under trying conditions. Mind you, the pitch wasn't one that would have sent a chill down the spine of the batsmen, but there is no denying the fact that there was a stark lack of application on the part of the Indian batsmen, which is imperative on this kind of a surface.
4. Rohit Sharma's selection over Ajinkya Rahane didn't pay off: Rohit Sharma was the toast of the nation after scoring his third ODI double century and a marauding T20I century, but had a forgettable outing at the Newlands. The difference is that his recent limited-overs exploits came against a hapless Sri Lankan attack, on placid pitches at home. But when put on the frying pan, Rohit could do no better than get singed. His faulty technique and temperament was found out against the South African pace quartet, on a juicy surface. The way he got out in the second innings, when India needed a frontline batsman to hang around with the lower-middle order and lower order, he absolutely threw away his wicket. He played at a back of a length delivery from Philander far away from his body. His feet went nowhere, the push was a half-hearted one and all he could do was to chop the ball onto his stumps.
Here then possibly a Rahane would have been a better choice. Yes, he has not been having the best of times with the bat of late, but given his superb overseas record, which is even better than that at home, Rahane could well have got a look-in. For the record, when he visited the Rainbow Nation the last time around, he was one of the top performers for India, collecting 209 runs in four innings at a rate of nearly 70. Those are sparkling numbers. Yes, Rahane's choice would have been a bold move, especially given his patchy form of late, but if his form were to be a concern, he should not have been on the plane to South Africa on the first place itself. Once he has been selected in the team, for such a marquee series as this, it is expected that he would contribute. The call for replacing Rohit with Rahane would gain traction now, after Rohit showed once more that for all his limited-overs pyrotechnics, his locus standi as a Test batsman is still questionable.
5. South Africa's fightback in the first innings and India conceding too big a lead: India started the match ferociously, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar climbing all over the opposition with a fine exhibition of seam bowling. South Africa were reduced to 12/3 in the fifth over itself, before two of the leading batsmen in world cricket AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis came together and added 114 runs to thwart the Indian attack. The two were calm and composed and ensured that the Indians, who had a foot in the door, were not allowed to break in. The rest of the South African batsmen added some useful runs too and in the end the 286 that the hosts managed in their first essay, which enabled them to take a sizeable first innings lead, tilted the balance in their favour, especially considering the difficulty level of the pitch.