India v South Africa, 5th ODI, Mumbai November 28, 2005

Failure to back the talk



South Africa might have missed a trick by holding back Justin Kemp © Getty Images

The common catch-phrase during South Africa's sizzling ODI run recently was "brave cricket", with emphasis on players expressing themselves and enjoying games, rather than withdrawing into a shell. Before embarking on their tour to India, Justin Kemp validated that theme by saying, "We want to go out and play almost extravagant cricket. You'd rather fail that way than be cautious and fail." However, there appeared to be only one team that went for the jugular in the final game of the series at Mumbai. Unfortunately for South Africa, who had been the better side until today, it wasn't them.

For most of the day, it was Rahul Dravid's men endeavoring into brave territory - understandably so with a must-win situation to confront. Excluding India's game against Bangladesh, only once had a side managed to chase successfully under lights on this ground, but Dravid chose to field. His bowlers appeared to be squandering a great chance to nail South Africa early, with Ajit Agarkar spraying it around in his opening spell, but Dravid shuffled his resources around, enforced one-over spells, and didn't hesitate to regularly shift ends.

More significantly, bad bowling was masked by superb ground fielding, the fielders were kept up even when Powerplays weren't in operation, and batsmen were left to rue every loose ball wasted. Yuvraj Singh, at point, dived around as if propelled by a spring in his shoes; Mohammad Kaif, at cover, was at his sprightly best; Harbhajan Singh, mostly spectacularly, covered a wide arc at the square boundary; and RP Singh, at third man, regularly let fly accurate throws over the bails. As the frustration piled on South Africa, they began to crack - Ashwell Prince top-edged a sweep after a period of play when only12 came off 5.4 overs; Mark Boucher took a wild swipe after being thwarted by an acrobatic bit of fielding by Harbhajan on the boundary line. India didn't release the pressure valve, South Africa were suffocated into indiscretion.

Earlier in the series, Smith had joked that India were hiding Mahendra Singh Dhoni, but one has to question South Africa's tactic of holding back Kemp. Both at Bangalore and here, with the top order floundering, one would have thought floating Kemp, or even Pollock, higher up the order might have been a bold tactic to break the shackles, in keeping with the brave brand of cricket being advertised. Instead Prince and Kallis added 41 laborious run in 12.3 overs when the field was up, as South Africa gradually withdrew into a shell, just when some "extravagant cricket" might have tilted the scales.

India failed to chase 255 here against an Andrew Flintoff-inspired England four years ago, but 222 wasn't going to test them as much once Sachin Tendulkar blazed away at the start. Amid the mighty reverberations on his home ground, Tendulkar displayed a panache not seen since the second game against Sri Lanka at Mohali and Sehwag joined in with a few audacious strokes himself. Mention must be made of the stupendous support that every stroke received - defence was greeted with claps, fours with mayhem - and it would have come as a welcome antidote to the Indians after the jeering they had to endure at Kolkata.

The going, though, wasn't all hunky dory, with Charl Langeveldt and Andre Nel producing superb spells in the middle, but fittingly Dravid, who had captained brilliantly in the afternoon, steered the chase with characteristic cool and made amends for the poor series with the bat. Yuvraj proved to be an able ally, delivering punches with awesome power, and carried on his cracking recent form - he now has a Michael Beven-esque average of 50 in his last 16 ODIs. It's a great irony that India's best batsman in this series - with 209 runs in four games - may not find a place in the starting XI when the first Test against Sri Lanka gets underway at Chennai in four days' time.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo