Two conspicuous features of India's sojourn to South Africa, one positive and the other negative, stand out by a mile.
The most impressive characteristic was not really the two trophies won. Though the One-Day Internationals (ODI) and Twenty20 (T20) victories are part of the success story, but the unbelievable focus and confidence the team displayed despite the false start of two debilitating Test defeats does rank as the biggest takeaway.
The harrowing defeats at the start of a challenging tour could have dispirited and disintegrated the team and none would have held it against them. But the recovery and comeback was the stuff of legends. The captain, coach and others responsible for boosting the morale of the team and keeping the flock together must be wholeheartedly appreciated for it. It was only that positive surge that helped the team bounce back.
The history of cricket tours has shown that it is no ordinary feat to take two successive defeats on the chin and move on, especially in a foreign country when so many things, from pitch, weather, people, culture, food, etc. would be alien.
Teams have been known to completely fall apart after a heavy loss in the initial stages of the tour to the extent that the rest of the tour becomes a chore, team spirit is ripped apart, players rancour and fight among themselves, leak out stories of discord and each tries to ensure that he plays to keep his place, rather than for the good of the team.
In countries like Australia, the local media too is known to play its part in taunting, provoking and driving fissures in the opponents.
It is in this context that skipper Virat Kohli's ability to maintain team spirit and coax the best out of his players on foreign shores must be applauded as one of the finest ever effort by an Indian skipper. He kept the team pumped-up even as external factors, like unexpected rain in drought-hit regions, impacted his team at most inopportune moments.
Of course, as is his wont, he led from the front, with the brilliant 153 in the second Test being one of the most impressive statements of defiance, coming as it did after the first Test loss.
There were other terrific performances, but none more impressive for grit and defiance than Bhuvneshwar Kumar's.
Kumar bowled well in the two Tests he played, bagging 10 wickets in all. But it was his defiant batting that echoed the never-say-die spirit of his skipper. He made 25 in a 99-run eighth-wicket partnership with Hardik Pandya when India were tottering at 92 for 7 in the first innings of the first Test. In the second innings, he made an unbeaten 13 in a 49-run stand with Ravichandran Ashwin to show that he was not going to be the one to throw it away.
He did better in the third Test. His 30 in a total of 187 was invaluable in the overall result. The tailender’s 33 in the second innings was just as priceless, especially as the South African fast bowlers were making the ball fly around disconcertingly. Kumar was the star of the tour, in Tests, ODIs and T20Is.
If Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri’s ability to keep the players primed despite the Test losses was one obvious positive feature, the other was a negative one that the Indian team urgently needs to set right.
Former England captain, the late Tony Greig in his book 'Cricket: The Men and the Game' ranked India as one of the most unbelievably good fielding teams of his era.
He said that the close catching of Ajit Wadekar, S Venkataraghavan, Abid Ali and that genius Eknath Solkar was so incredible that they accounted for most of the wickets of the spin quartet.
Kohli and Shastri would do well to replicate that sort of close catching, especially in the slips where the present Indian team looked worse than schoolboy cricketers.
The simple truth for Kohli and Shastri is that they cannot field a four-man pace attack if they have people who can't catch to save their lives manning the slip cordon. Catch after catch was put down in the slips even as Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma found the edges. Even a game changer like AB de Villiers was dropped more than once.
Kohli is an aggressive captain and it is very refreshing to see him stick to his five-bowler policy. But for it to take India to another level of success, he needs to get the team's slip-catching act together. Whatever training the slip fielders have been doing all along has not helped their catching. It would be better to immediately engage a world class fielding coach to work on that aspect of their game. Otherwise the Test tour of England this year could also slip through their fingers.
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