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January 6, 2007
Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest of all sports coaches, once said: "Teams do not go physically flat, they go mentally stale." This afternoon, at a suitably grey Newlands, India were not only mentally stale, but as physically flat as beer left under a harsh sun. With the exception of a couple of new faces fuelled by the exuberance of youth, and another driven by the urge to reestablish himself, the rest were unathletic old men bereft of energy and desire. At day's end, the young lions were perfectly entitled to look accusingly at the toothless, clawless old ones and wonder when the urge to fight had dissipated.
It would have been a travesty if rain had denied South Africa. Ever since the loss at the Wanderers, they had been patently the hungrier side, winning the decisive sessions and making the running against an Indian team that didn't even recognise the key moments, leave alone seize them.
The architect of the revival was undoubtedly Graeme Smith, whose pugnacity under pressure fetched him three straight half-centuries after a truly abysmal start to the series. When he walked back out this morning, the game was still in the balance, with Hashim Amla falling to the last ball of the fourth day. As ally, he had a man with oceans of experience, and a batting technique capable of coping with the best that Anil Kumble and friends could muster.
Promoting Shaun Pollock to No.4 was a masterstroke. It gave Smith someone at the other end that was unafraid to play his strokes, and more importantly, someone who wouldn't shy away from taking on Kumble. With Pollock knocking the ball around sweetly, Smith had the freedom to express himself, and by the time the rain arrived, 56 had been whittled away from the target in just 10.5 overs.
Both India's bowling and fielding were listless and insipid in that passage of play. Unlike Shane Warne, Kumble has never really been comfortable bowling round the wicket into the rough, and his attempts to settle into a length were easily frustrated. The pace bowlers were all over the place, and instead of a steady build-up of pressure, the runs came with the ease that they would on a first-day pitch.
When the players came back nearly four hours later, things were markedly better. Zaheer Khan produced a magnificent spell to nab both Smith and Pollock, leaving some to wonder what might have been had such urgency and aggression been on display in the morning. Suddenly, Kumble too appeared to find some extra zip and for a while, there must have been more than the odd chewed finger-nail in the South African dressing room.
Such games turn on little things, and India's moment perhaps came and went with a Kumble googly. Kallis was always going to be the key man, utterly impervious to the prattling from behind the stumps and possessed of a temperament perfectly suited to the strains of a run chase. Yet, he had no idea about a wrong 'un that Kumble threw up, and the shouts of anguish as the ball narrowly cleared the stumped summed up India's day.
Once Ashwell Prince overcame a nervous start, the path to victory became far less rocky. India's new-found intensity vanished just before tea, and 16 runs in the first two overs after tea pretty much settled it. Dinesh Karthik, whose superb catch to dismiss Smith offered a frisson of hope, never lost his voice behind the stumps, while Sreesanth and Zaheer were never found wanting in the commitment stakes.
A clearly unfit Munaf Patel bowled just one over, the 48th of the innings, but the real disappointment was Kumble. The man the South Africans feared most on a wearing pitch couldn't summon up anything like his best when it mattered most, and once again, Indian dreams of a series victory abroad vanished like the rain clouds that had initially enveloped Table Mountain. It was no surprise when a misfield sealed South Africa's triumph, encapsulating India's inability to cling on to a series that was theirs for the taking after the opening day.
Looking back, it would be easy to say that India lost it with their deplorable batting on the fourth afternoon, but in fairness South Africa won it by being prepared to go the extra yard when needed. Unlike India's old-timers, who flunked their test miserably, the duo of Pollock and Kallis were impeccable with the ball, even as one for the future - Dale Steyn - devastated any slim Indian hopes of a revival.
Most of all, this was Smith's victory. His innate self-belief and swagger would perhaps have been embraced in Australia, though they appear to make people uncomfortable here. And when his team needed to be shown the way, he was the first one out of the trenches. No praise can be too high for that. Like Lombardi, he had understood one of life's fundamental truths: "It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men."
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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