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South Africa v India, 4th ODI, Port Elizabeth

The big names fail to stand up

The Verdict by Dileep Premachandran at Port Elizabeth

November 29, 2006

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Herschelle Gibbs recovered his groove, with not a little help from Ajit Agarkar © Getty Images
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Once again, the margin of victory was an accurate reflection of South African superiority. Despite uneasy rumblings about the so-called quota system, and the poor form currently plaguing Graeme Smith, South Africa have shown in recent times that they're well worth their No.2 ranking in the one-day game. The 2-2 draw in India last year, which included a crushing 10-wicket win at Kolkata, should have served as a warning and back on home turf, the South Africans have been unstoppable.

Yet again though, India must look back on an opportunity lost, and a game squandered. The bowlers had done a sterling job to keep South Africa down to 243, with Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth providing early breakthroughs, and Anil Kumble showcasing his class in the middle overs. But with the batting coloured by the lack of confidence that has characterised every game on this tour, an eminently gettable target became as difficult as the search for El Dorado. Without the immense presence of Rahul Dravid, there was never going to be any gold at journey's end.

If there was a bright spark, it came from Irfan Pathan. Derided by so many for his bland bowling, and having appeared so short on confidence in recent times, Pathan showed much of the poise and range of strokes that made him such an integral part of India's successes last season. It remains to be seen whether he'll be asked to stay on for the Tests, but even if he doesn't, the resolve he showed today indicated that he still has a major role to play in Indian cricket's future.

The rest were a shambles. With the exception of Sachin Tendulkar, who nibbled at a fine delivery from the ever-persistent Shaun Pollock, every other batsman got a start and then threw it away. Virender Sehwag led the way with a nothing waft that was brilliantly taken, while Dinesh Karthik and Mahendra Singh Dhoni promised much before playing awful shots when the asking rate didn't exactly demand a push of the panic button.

South Africa had shown how it should be done, getting to a competitive total despite losing wickets at regular intervals. In games such as this, it needs at least one batsman to stick around, and Herschelle Gibbs did that wonderfully, eschewing his normal flamboyant approach on his way to a restrained unbeaten 93. By the time Pathan threatened to do something similar, the cause was lost, with the cream of the batting line-up having been skimmed away.

It's no coincidence that the Indian team's travails on this tour have coincided with the abject failure of some senior players. That was evident even on the bowling side of things, with Ajit Agarkar serving up another maddeningly inconsistent spell after Zaheer and Sreesanth had kept the runs down in the early stages. Gibbs has struggled in recent times, but after an entertaining cameo in Durban, he was helped on his way here by Agarkar's inability to string together six decent deliveries. On four occasions, the final ball of the over sped to the rope, releasing any pressure that may have been built up earlier.

Jacques Kallis batted quite beautifully for his 49, and but for Kumble's telling intervention, India may have been left with a lot more to chase in vain. In the end, it didn't matter. India's biggest batting cannons have been muzzled - Tendulkar now has 74 runs from his last seven innings against South Africa - and if they don't fire soon, this will become a tour to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. South Africa haven't been anywhere near their best, but whatever they've come up with has been more than enough to deal with an Indian side that look like they'd rather be anywhere but here.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo

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Dileep Premachandran Associate editor Dileep Premachandran gave up the joys of studying thermodynamics and strength of materials with a view to following in the footsteps of his literary heroes. Instead, he wound up at the Free Press Journal in Mumbai, writing on sport and politics before Gentleman gave him a column called Replay. A move to MyIndia.com followed, where he teamed up with Sambit Bal, and he arrived at ESPNCricinfo after having also worked for Cricket Talk and total-cricket.com. Sunil Gavaskar and Greg Chappell were his early cricketing heroes, though attempts to emulate their silken touch had hideous results. He considers himself obscenely fortunate to have watched live the two greatest comebacks in sporting history - India against invincible Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001, and Liverpool's inc-RED-ible resurrection in the 2005 Champions' League final. He lives in Bangalore with his wife, who remains astonishingly tolerant of his sporting obsessions.
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