Surface 'the toughest' I have played on - Amla
After "probably three of the toughest days" he had experienced in his Test career, the usually unflappable Hashim Amla was left frustrated.
"The surface was probably the toughest that I have had and the cricket itself was really difficult," Amla said. "Credit to India, they kind of bowled well. Unfortunately, we ended up on the wrong side of this game."
The result in Nagpur ended South Africa's nine-year unbeaten streak in 15 away series, the second-longest unbeaten run in the history of Tests. The 124-run loss also ended a golden South African era that was defined by adaptability away from home. Amla, however, said that even the South African teams that adjusted everywhere from Auckland to Abu Dhabi would probably not have been able to display the same adhesion on the Nagpur turner.
"One consolation would be that the conditions we played in. We haven't experienced this type of challenge before," he said. "I haven't played on this before in my life anywhere away from home so I suppose it's a bit of consolation because it was really challenging and you never know if we had come against this before what would have happened."
Amla stated that the pitch at the VCA Stadium was "a lot more challenging" than the ones he had played on during the previous visits to India. In 2008, Amla scored 159 in Chennai, before striking a double-century in Nagpur two years later. Amla countered Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh during those trips but felt that the two bowlers would have been unplayable on the Nagpur pitch, where South Africa were shot out for 79 in 33.1 overs in the first innings.
"When I first came to India in 2008 and even in 2010, I was facing Anil Kumble, Harbhajan," Amla said. "I think if I had to face them on wickets like this I don't think I would have got any runs either. Facing them here would have been an nightmare."
While Amla acknowledged the current Indian crop as "exceptional in these conditions," he believed the surfaces were more to blame for the strangle that affected both teams. "The wickets have played their part in making it difficult for all the batters. There hasn't been a hundred in the series yet and just a handful of fifties, and that's for both teams. It would be harsh to say this South African team has struggled to score runs. If you look a the Indian team although they are on the winning side, it's been tough for their batters as well."
South Africa's technique and temperament, especially against spin, was questioned but Amla and Faf du Plessis combined well in a stoic second-innings effort. The partnership revived memories of Adelaide and Colombo in its determination but was nowhere near as comfortable.
"I still think we could have got bowled out for 70 or 100 in the second innings. There were so many plays and misses, edges that could have gone to hand. It's easy to say that we could have batted in the first innings how we did in the second innings but I think circumstances were a lot different," Amla explained. "Some balls go to hand, some balls don't go to hand and we scored slowly. I don't think we were as positive."
Amla also felt that South Africa may have turned the tables around had the target been closer to 200 besides calling for a better effort from the bowlers and the fielders.
"If you look at their first innings, I think they were about 30 runs too much from our bowling perspective," Amla said. "I don't think it was a 200 first innings wicket and neither was it a 170. We could have got India out for at least 140 and that would have changed the context of the game."
The South Africa captain, though, may have himself to blame for allowing the hosts get away. On a pitch where spinners thrived, even with the new ball, Amla held back his most attacking option - Imran Tahir. The legspinner bowled only two overs before tea on the first day and was not used until the 25th over of the second innings.
"Imran has a tendency of picking up wickets but leaking runs," Amla said. "That's the type of bowler he is. I found it difficult to use him in the first innings because of him leaking a bit of runs here and there and felt Simon [Harmer] was somebody who could get us a wicket as well as keep it tight."
"And then in the second innings, when you are more than 100 behind you have to find the balance. He picked up five wickets and I know it's easy to ask why I didn't bring him on earlier but if I knew he was going to pick up five, I would have opened the bowling with him. I don't have any regrets because I had a clear idea of what I needed to do. It's not about lack of trust. It's about using your players as efficiently as possible."
Essentially, the Tahir conundrum is a microcosm of how South Africa have approached this series. They were aware of the spin challenge but had little clue about the extent of it. Having seen all and succumbed to it, do South Africa think India went too far to secure the home advantage? "You want to lose honourably and you want to win honourably as well," Amla said. "I can't comment too much on the wickets. Let's leave it at that."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent