A common theme of press conferences in this Test series has been the 2015 throwback. You know, when South Africa last turned up on these shores, and found that the Indian team management opted for rank turners. It is said that series dented the Proteas' psyche to quite an extent.
Traveling journalists talk of crest-fallen faces in Mohali, downbeat batsmen in Nagpur and general depression in the dressing room about the kind of wickets presented. You understand their point of view — those 2015 wickets were ghastly from a cricketing sense. But, at the same time, you also understand India's point of view — that South African side boasted of Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, and was the number one side in Tests. The hosts, only starting their Test journey under Virat Kohli, needed to make a bold statement and so they did, with a 3-0 win.
Four years on, and Kohli's now-seasoned team has almost replicated that score-line with one Test remaining. On Sunday, as South Africa were routed by an innings plus 137 runs, you could use the same words to describe the mood in the visitors' dressing room — crest fallen, downbeat and depressed. There is one match to go still, but there is great doubt if this mood will, or can, change.
"The batsmen were weak on mind set," said Faf du Plessis, lamenting the loss. What else would he say after India batted once for 156-odd overs and South Africa batted twice across 173 overs? Gulf in class, or temperament, surely experience — take your pick, for each of these words fit perfectly to define what has transpired. Even so, it won't be so easy to explain this loss when they fly back home.
In that light, 2019 hasn't been a kind year to them. First, there was the World Cup debacle, which sort of seemed obvious in the end despite many hoping for a different outcome. And then a tour to India, after a flurry of international retirements, arguably the toughest assignment in world cricket today. Yet, two weeks ago, Faf was hopeful. "This side has the chance to be the next Amlas and ABs, and Steyns," he had said.
Let us start with the pitches again then. There can be no complaints in this regard. True, South Africa haven't complained about them either and merely answering questions about their 2015 experience doesn't classify as whining.
This South African side was considered different. Faf and Dean Elgar are experienced enough to not let 2015 affect them. Aiden Markram, Theunis de Bruyn, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock are young enough to learn and play independent of past debacles. The anticipation of a different outcome was easily lost, sadly. From Markram to de Bruyn, from Elgar to du Plessis, from Bavuma to de Kock, each of them are guilty of poor shot selection. Surely, 2015 couldn't have impacted it!
Forget the pitches, it seemed a mental battle ever since R Ashwin came on to bowl in Visakhapatnam with a 500-total behind him. Remember Markram's big stride to cover the length and hoping for an expansive drive? The end result — shattered stumps through a huge gap between bat and pad — scarred him. Look at de Bruyn getting out with a swipe down leg-side in Pune — a number three batsman needs to bat tighter than that when the follow-on has been enforced!
Elgar's grittiness and du Plessis' dogged determination tried to show them the way. De Kock flourished for once, but it was a flash in the pan. You cannot expect to bat with the same template in overseas conditions every single innings — you have to play the situation, and conditions, and the bowling attack.
However, when your bowlers put up key partnerships in three out of four innings across two lost Tests, the problem is more than just shot selection. When playing overseas, it is important to get the batting order right — even India made such crucial mistakes in 2018, most prominently in South Africa when they dropped Ajinkya Rahane. As if to return the favour, the Proteas made some of their own, and far graver!
There is a burning question to answer here. Du Plessis' knock at Visakhapatnam showed his presence at the crease was crucial. It brought certain calm to the middle and any partnership with him generated confidence and momentum. Why did he bat so low in three of the four innings then?
The answer isn't Bavuma, but what his continued selection points to. South African cricket is troubled because of their selection policy that must include players of colour, right from their domestic and junior structure, and place them in prominent positions within the first team at international level.
Colour over credentials — no, it cannot be fair. It isn't to say that Bavuma cannot succeed at the international level, but at age 29, with average 31.78 in 38 Tests, it feels as if he is there for reasons other than cricket.
Imagine India's transition all those years ago — what if players like Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, and so on, couldn't rise up in stature because of some quota put in place to right the wrong from decades ago? Where would Indian cricket be today? Certainly not in good health it is now.
The problematic answer to South Africa's issues is the Kolpak route their most talented cricketers have taken recently. While the Proteas were struggling in the World Cup, Simon Harmer and Kyle Abbott were mingling with traveling press. It reminded them of a generation lost, bowlers who could have supported the worn-out Kagiso Rabada on this tour but are plying their wares playing in an alien nation. Instead, you have Anrich Nortje making his Test debut and failing to adapt to how the SG ball is used.
Poor shot selection, failure of their pacers to adapt and spin options that didn't work to plan — these problems become secondary in nature when there is an elephant in the room you cannot push out. Transition is never easy for any cricketing nation, and it will be near impossible to replace Amla, de Villiers and Steyn. But South Africa are trying to do it with one hand tied behind the back.
Those illustrious names were hurt with the 2015 loss, yes. This 2019 loss will, and should, hurt deeper. Hopefully, it will push the Proteas to look in the mirror and try to recover before South African cricket is lost beyond redemption.