South Africa v India, 5th ODI, Centurion December 3, 2006

Pollock defies the critics

Rejuvenated spearhead: 'In 21 matches this year, he has 32 wickets at 17.34 while conceding only 2.98 per over' © Getty Images

It was fitting that Shaun Pollock was in the middle when victory was clinched, given the immense role that he had played in South Africa's annihilation of the Indians in this series. The 4-0 drubbing was the first whitewash that India have suffered in a bilateral series since the one in Sri Lanka in 1997-98 where they were trounced 3-0.

Pollock contributed 86 runs with the bat in this series - only Mahendra Singh Dhoni (139) and Sachin Tendulkar (93) scored more for India - but it was his bowling that was a revelation, with 10 wickets costing just 8.3 apiece. The economy rate of 2.3 was scarcely believable, even in a series where bowlers on both sides performed creditably till the Indians had a meltdown under the afternoon sun at Centurion.

For a man who was thought to be on his last legs a little over a season ago, the turnaround had been a dramatic one. Ironically, for the Indians, it can be traced back to the series in India last winter, when a rejuvenated Pollock scalped seven wickets in four games, while never relinquishing the stranglehold that he had on the top order. Even then, 2005 was hardly a memorable year, with just 27 wickets in 27 games, and an economy rate (4.17) that was well above his career average.

The downward spiral had started soon after a calamitous World Cup exit that saw him stripped of the captaincy. The potency was noticeably reduced in 2004, when his 18 wickets (18 games) cost 32.44 each, a figure that bloated to 33.51 the following year despite the strong showing in India.

What has changed since? Fitness, for one thing. The Pollock on view in this series is noticeably sharper than the one of 2004 and 2005 vintage, and those who follow the game closely here attribute that to the fact that he's started the season without a persistent niggle or two for the first time in three years. And how it's shown in the figures. In 21 matches this year, he has 32 wickets at 17.34 while conceding only 2.98 per over.

Pollock's superb spell with the new ball wasn't the only worry for India on a dark day under a shining sun. Graeme Smith had some hairy moments early on, but after just one run in the preceding three games, he crunched 79 from 85 balls, with some glorious big hits down the ground. But even that effort was comfortably eclipsed by AB de Villiers, who finished eight short of what would have been a richly deserved century. de Villiers plays with the passion of youth, and his No Fear approach against the likes of Anil Kumble was instrumental in hastening India's demise.

It didn't help that Mohammad Kaif put down a simple chance at point when he had made just nine, after Sreesanth had set him up beautifully with a short ball into the midriff. After that, the Indian bowling was a punctured balloon, with pace and spin alike coming in for fearful hammer from two batsmen who knew that the target was a paltry one.

In truth, India deserved no better. The pitch did a bit early on, but the batting was so tardy that a score of 250 was a chimera midway through the innings. On the very ground where he once scripted an epic 75-ball 98, Sachin Tendulkar took 41 balls to find the boundary rope for the first time.

Against Pakistan nearly four years ago, he had blitzed his way to 50 from 37 balls. Today, he had four from the same number of balls faced. Robin Peterson's innocuous left-arm spin provided some respite, and boundary-hitting opportunities, but Pollock's complete mastery over him - one run conceded in 19 balls - summed up India's plight in the series. Outplayed and outclassed, they couldn't even find shadows to hide in as South Africa romped home.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo