More questions than answers
It's not often that a team wins a four-day game by 96 runs, with a day to spare, and finds itself with more questions than answers. The Indians bowled out a fairly strong Rest of South Africa side for 138 and 224, but the manner in which their own top order capitulated in both innings is cause for tremendous worry heading into the Test series.
Even before the game, the focus was on how to deal with the pace attack that South Africa will unleash at the Wanderers next Friday. And with that in mind, the net sessions, especially with the bowling machine had been extremely specific. A lot of the time, it was set to a "Pollock length", so that the Indian batsmen could explore ways of scoring runs against a man renowned for giving nothing away. As Greg Chappell told Cricinfo: "If one can't score from a particular bowler, it's only a matter of time before he gets you out." After all, that's how Glenn McGrath has operated for more than a decade.
One of the few saving graces was the batting of Sourav Ganguly and Irfan Pathan. Ganguly's first-innings 83 was all about sheer bloodymindedness and experience. He had his uncomfortable moments, being hit on the helmet and then dropped at gully, but more than a decade of experience allowed him to keep going. He was getting into line, and he played some superb strokes through the off side, even when Jacques Rudolph tried to choke off the runs by having seven men there.
And he wasn't playing some kids either. Morne Morkel will take the new ball for South Africa, sooner rather than later, and Alfonso Thomas is part of that dying breed, a medium-fast swing bowler who's tremendously accurate. Nantie Hayward had his moments too, while Friedel de Wet gave nothing away. "Sourav played very well," said Chappell later. "His feet were moving well, and he showed the discipline that is required to make runs. His example inspired Irfan."
Pathan carried on the good work in the second innings as well, even as the rest folded for next to nothing, but his first-innings century was relegated to the shadows by Ganguly's return. Right from the first handshake with Chappell at the nets after Ganguly's arrival in Potchefstroom, the TV crews and others have tried to magnify every single gesture made by both men, often arriving at ludicrous conclusions.
On the morning after his 83, Ganguly arrived at the nets wanting to practise the cut shot. Chappell sent down about 20 balls, and the little episode was caught on camera by the ESPN crew, there to interview the coach in the build-up to the Test series. The others went into a tizzy when they realised that ESPN had such footage, and it was hard to believe that so much was made of something as innocuous as a coach giving throw-downs to one of his players. Both men are professionals, with nearly 200 Test matches between them, and neither has anything to gain by sabotaging the other in these desperately lean times for Indian cricket.
If there was a negative, it was the manner of Ganguly's dismissal in the second innings. Having ducked under one bouncer, he got himself into a real tangle against another short-pitched ball, looping up the simplest of catches off the right glove. The South African bowlers, who will no doubt have watched it, will certainly have made a mental note to bowl fast and straight, with the ball pitched short of a length. Such a scenario will force Ganguly to play either the hook or the pull to make runs, or wait for the odd ball pitched on a driving length.
In that regard, Pathan's batting had only complicated selection matters. He's clearly not intimidated by short-pitched fast bowling, and the assurance with which he got into line will tempt the team management to explore the idea of fitting him somewhere in the batting line-up. For the moment, he can't hold down a place on the strength of his bowling, but with the likes of Wasim Jaffer and Virender Sehwag so short on runs and confidence, it'll be interesting to see what decision they make.
Even with Munaf Patel looking increasingly unlikely to play in Johannesburg, there are few such worries about the bowling. Sreesanth bowled good outswing at lively pace, while Zaheer Khan was simply outstanding. The delivery that nipped back sharply to castle Jean Paul Duminy in the second inning was perhaps the best of the match, but to an extent, even he was eclipsed by VRV Singh, the wild-card pick who had divided opinion when he was called up for the Tests.
For as long as most of us can remember, Indians have been at the receiving end when it comes to raw pace. Now, they have someone who can dish it out. Chappell, who had been anxious to have him in the touring party, came into the press box on Saturday afternoon and spoke of how excited some of the seniors had been. "Sachin said at lunch time [on Friday] that he had really enjoyed watching from slip, and that he felt VRV had touched around the 145kmph mark," said Chappell. "They were standing so far back at slip."
Cyril Mitchley, the former umpire who was match referee for the game, also spoke of how impressed he had been with the bowling from both sides. "There wasn't much wrong with the pitch at all," he told Cricinfo. "But the overhead conditions helped swing, and most batsmen are no longer used to playing high-quality swing bowling at pace."
With Anil Kumble certain to slot in for the Test, India certainly appear to have the bowling resources to stretch a South African line-up that were horribly exposed by the likes of Stuart Clark not so long ago. Whether they have batting to put runs on the board is another matter. Rahul Dravid's return will undoubtedly help, as will an innings of substance from Sachin Tendulkar. Chappell and others feel that Tendulkar's problems are more in the mind than anything else, and if he can get his headspace right, who knows what's possible. As Lara, McGrath and Warne have shown recently, writing off the old-stagers is an exercise fraught with danger.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo