No crumbs of comfort for India
Where to from here? This wasn't a liberally grassed pitch like the one at Motera in April 2008. This was low and slow, with the ball turning appreciably right from the opening day. And India still got pulped. Apart from a session where the genius of Virender Sehwag and the growing confidence of S Badrinath saw them frustrate South Africa, they were second-best in every single session. Dale Steyn bowled wonderfully well, but both Morne Morkel and Wayne Parnell can do better. Paul Harris took more wickets than India's spinners while bowling 19 maiden overs. Harbhajan Singh managed one. If you're looking for crumbs of comfort, don't bother. The table was wiped clean.
Once Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed, it was almost a given that the match wouldn't go into a fifth day. He had made 100 of the 168 added while he was at the crease. And though the tail didn't resemble a Doberman's as in the first innings, neither Harbhajan or Zaheer Khan batted as though there was a game to be saved. When you swing at every ball, sooner or later you miss. And Steyn and friends were too good not to hit.
The roots of this debacle go back to some frankly ludicrous selection. Perhaps the selectors know something we don't. Otherwise, it will be a bit of an ordeal to explain why Virat Kohli, the best young batsman in the country, found no place in the squad despite his recent successes in the one-day game. Four fast bowlers were called up when India had no intention of diverting from their two-seamer-two-spinner strategy. One of the selectors told Ravi Shastri that Abhimanyu Mithun was picked because they "wanted to have a look at him."
He could have been invited to bowl in the nets without being part of the squad. Instead, they went for a squad with six batsmen, despite Laxman carrying an injury that made him extremely doubtful from the outset. His last-minute replacement Rohit Sharma, whose pre-game injury paved the way for Wriddhiman Saha's bizarre debut, had done nothing in recent times to warrant being first reserve. Having made such a pig's ear of picking the 15, the selectors deserve every bit of criticism that will come their way over the coming days.
What can now be done to salvage the situation? This series was shoehorned into the calendar so that the No.1 ranking that was the reward for home success against Sri Lanka could be consolidated. Instead, India face the prospect of holding on to top spot for even less time than South Africa did in 2002 when Australia were the best team in the world by the width of the Indian Ocean.
Laxman's return will lend solidity to the batting, but it's the bowling that needs most attention. Sehwag's jibe about the Bangladesh bowlers a month ago could come back to haunt India because they never looked like dismissing South Africa once, forget twice. Zaheer was impressive in spurts, while Ishant faded after a decent start. The spinners bowled 99 overs for two wickets. Amit Mishra beat the bat countless times, but too often the ball turned too much to take the edge.
There's only so much tinkering that can be done with the players available. Sreesanth's outswing offers an attractive option, one that has discomfited South Africa in the past, but he hasn't played competitive cricket in more than a month. Harbhajan's record at the Eden Gardens - he has 38 wickets from six Tests, including nine against South Africa in 2004 - should keep him in the side, and the presence of three left-handers in South Africa's top six means Pragyan Ojha is unlikely to be risked.
As MS Dhoni admitted afterwards, South Africa's side has far better balance because of Jacques Kallis. India can shed tears over the disappearance of Irfan Pathan, but for the moment they must mix and match as best they can. Badrinath has probably done enough to keep his place, but he'll drop down to No.6 when Laxman returns. If the hand injury doesn't heal quickly enough, then it should be Dinesh Karthik that takes Laxman's place. Any man who can handle Steyn, Ntini and Pollock at Newlands is a better bet than a debutant.
Having been thrashed out of sight here, India have finally selected a proper Test squad. But with Steyn in full cry, troubling batsmen with both conventional and reverse swing, it remains to be seen whether that'll be enough. "Will they be taking a rake to the pitch?" asked Graeme Smith with a laugh when he received a query about Eden Gardens. If India lose the toss again, it might not be enough.