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India’s loss to South Africa – Heartbreaking or acceptable?

A look at hindsight biases and positives regarding India's loss to South Africa at Newlands, Cape Town.


1st Sunfoil Test: South Africa v India, Day Four
Bhuvaneshwar Kumar had a great start to the series - with bat and ball

India lost the first test of the tour to South Africa by 72 runs. Many termed this as a heartbreaking loss. The postmortem analysis suggested everybody saw it coming – in the hindsight.

In the hindsight, India should have picked Ajinkya Rahane instead of Rohit Sharma. In the hindsight, India should have attacked more when they had South Africa three down for not many in the first hour of the test. In the hindsight, India should play greener tracks in home tests. In the hindsight everything makes sense. In reality, hindsight is the luxury you don't have.

Rahane instead of Sharma deserves a special mention. Rohit was picked for this series on the basis of his recent test and, especially, limited overs form. He looked to be in great shape mentally. Rahane had an equally worse season. 

Who do you choose if you were Virat Kohli? A guy in the form of his life or a guy who is enduring a rough patch but whose overseas record makes him an almost automatic choice? Should you reward good performances or should you go by the past records and ignore the recent failures? It's a tough choice. I'm glad I did not have to make it.

Even so, after watching how the match unfolded at Cape Town, it should have made more sense to have Rohit, a naturally attacking batsman, in the mix. The only successful batsmen in this test were the ones who attacked. Pandya was a phenomenal success and so was AB de Villiers.

You can discount Rohit's tentativeness in the first innings but three innings later it was pretty clear that attack was the only option. That he did not choose to do so is as baffling to me as it is to anybody else. That would make Kohli's situation worse. It will be interesting to see what Kohli does next.

It is very difficult to look at positives when a team loses a test chasing a meager 208. It becomes slightly easier to do so when you know that 72 is the lowest margin in a loss for India in tests against South Africa in South Africa, ever.

Previous losses include the margins of 174, 282, 328 and innings & 25 runs. In other words, this was the best loss, if there is such as thing, for India in South Africa in terms of margin of runs.

A lot of the credit goes to the bowlers who made a match of it by reducing South Africa to 130 in their second innings. The pitch was helpful but they learned their lessons quickly and adjusted the line and length accordingly. They did not allow the South African top order, especially Hashim Amla, to score freely in both innings. It's a feat worthy of a mention.

Also, this loss was a statistical normalcy. India was greatly against the odds while chasing 208 in the fourth innings. In the last hundred years, no country, barring Australia, has successfully chased more than 200 runs in the fourth innings in South Africa. 

Note: Here I'm excluding Hansie Cronje’s fiasco in the year 2000 where, in want of a result for the bookies, he manipulated the situation so that England forfeited their first and South Africa their second innings after day 2, 3 and 4 were lost due to rain. England went on to win the test by chasing 251. Technically this wasn’t a 4th innings win. Officially this test should not exist.

And what about Vernon Philander? He is a monster on this ground. He averages 16.34 at Newlands, Cape Town. A whopping 25% improvement over his career average. He was bowling leg breaks at 125 to 130 kmph on a pitch that was providing ample assistance to seamers. He could have defended 50 on his own if he had to. He was almost denied the over in which he took 3 wickets to finish the game off in a hulk-smash style when we thought there is still some life left in it. He hardly let Steyn's absence felt. The way he set up Virat Kohli and then produced the delivery that mattered was an act of artistry. 

There is no shame in losing to a man when he is doing what Philander did at Newlands. It's a miracle India bettered South Africa's score in the second innings against him. India have more positives from this game than it meets the eye. This was not a heartbreaking loss for India. It was just an acceptable one.

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