'There will be a few guys under pressure' - Chappell
Greg Chappell, the coach, was candid in his assessment of the gains and losses after yet another Indian campaign overseas ended with the bitter taste of defeat. Chappell addressed India's batting failures in the last two Tests, while praising the likes of Sreesanth, Zaheer Khan and Sourav Ganguly for their contributions. And though he didn't say it in so many words, a few major changes are likely ahead of the eight one-day internationals at home in January and February.
After having much the better of the first three days, India surrendered the initiative on the fourth afternoon when they could add only 48 runs for the loss of four wickets before tea. "We lost momentum during that middle session," said Chappell. "That certainly didn't help the situation, and was a significant contribution to not winning the game. I also think we failed to get as many as we should have got in the first innings [the last five wickets contributed 19].
"The bowlers have done a pretty good job through the series and to miss out on the opportunity to win it is a little disappointing. I don't want to overstate things but I think it's fair to say that our batting was disappointing in the last two Test matches, having won the first Test."
Asked about the mood in the dressing room after South Africa knocked off the 211 needed with five wickets still standing, Chappell said: "We are a little bit flat, disappointed in the fact that we got away to such a good start and then let it get away from us. You have got to look at the positives as well. We have won [a Test] for the first time in South Africa and that in itself is something to be enjoyed. But the edge has been taken off it a little bit by the disappointing batting in the last two Test matches."
While South Africa's big-name players came back with a vengeance in the final two Tests, Graeme Smith leading the way, India's big guns never boomed. "It's hard to escape, but that's the case," he said. "I don't want to make too big a point at this stage. It's posed quite a few questions for us and there are things we are going to discuss over the next week or so.
"The positive side of it is that some of the young boys performed very well. They showed they have got some skill, some temperament and good personalities for international cricket. Sree's bowling has been outstanding, Zaheer has been very good as well. Kumble has done a pretty good job for us, I don't think he can be criticised for today. It just wasn't a wicket that gave any of the bowlers a great deal of assistance which probably highlights how disappointing our batting was yesterday."
One man whose lack of form has come under most scrutiny is Virender Sehwag. After dropping down to the middle order in the first innings, where he scored 40, Sehwag continued his dismal run at the top with a second-innings failure. "He's certainly a concern but I don't think he is our only batting concern at the moment," said Chappell. "We are just not getting enough consistent runs. We seem to be losing wickets in batches, which is something you try and avoid in international cricket, particularly in a Test match.
"Looking at the tour as a whole, there are more questions than answers. Over the next week or so, when we get back to India and have a chance to digest what's happened and discuss and debrief, we're going to have to make some decisions on which direction we go. There will be a few guys under a bit of pressure, there's no doubt."
At the same time, Chappell refused to accept that the decision to open with Sehwag was the wrong option. "I don't know that you can say that any decision is a wrong decision," he said. "It was a calculated decision. He has been an opening batsman, he made 40 in the first innings, and it was a pretty slow, Indian-type wicket. We felt that if any wicket in South Africa was going to suit him, this one would. With a lead of 40, if we had got an hour or so of Virender playing the way he can, all of a sudden that lead would have been 100, and the whole game would have changed.
"The other thing you have to take into consideration is that Karthik did a fabulous job in the first innings, and then kept for 130 overs. I don't think we can ask too much of a young man. We asked a lot of him in the first innings and he delivered as well as anyone could. But you don't necessarily expect a stop-gap opener to be able to do the job continuously."
Even then, India were still in the game when South Africa went off on the fourth evening with 156 still needed. But Smith and Shaun Pollock came out and flayed the bowling, making the most of many gaps in the field and some atrocious ground-fielding. "What Rahul [Dravid] was trying to do was minimise the number of boundaries to try and stretch that 211 as far as possible," said Chappell. "Obviously, we didn't need them to get away with a string of boundaries early in the day. But to be fair, the wicket didn't deteriorate like a lot of people expected, including ourselves.
"I'm not sure it changed greatly. There were some targets for the spin bowlers but it wasn't a minefield by any stretch of the imagination. The centre areas, the major landing areas, were still pretty good, so I suppose it makes our batting performance of yesterday that much more disappointing. There weren't that many gremlins in the wicket, there weren't that many balls flying around. It wasn't up and down, or staying down. If you were prepared to get in and not do anything silly, then batting was not that difficult."
The team management will no doubt attract considerable flak for selecting Munaf Patel, who bowled just one over in the second innings, ahead of Harbhajan Singh, though there were no indicators that the pitch would prove to be so spin-friendly. "It was never a choice between Munaf and Harbhajan," said Chappell. "We wanted the batting that we had and we wanted the balance of the bowling that we had. To be fair, Harbhajan hasn't bowled for a month, so it was going to be a big ask to push him into the team as well.
"It's very easy to look at things in hindsight and say what if, what if. We made the choices based on what we saw and what we had. It wasn't a fitness thing at all."
One of the stories of the tour was the return of Sourav Ganguly, who turned out to be the senior batsman who acquitted himself best. Ganguly started with a vital half-century in the Johannesburg win, and was India's leading scorer in the series with 214 runs. "He has done what he was chosen to do, which is to get in there and get runs," said Chappell. "I thought his performance yesterday in the difficult circumstance of having to be rushed in at the last minute was exceptional."
The same couldn't be said of most of his compatriots. Even as Australia's version of Dad's Army signed off with an epic Ashes triumph, India's appears to be on its last legs. Thankfully, the likes of Sreesanth and Karthik should ensure that the future isn't as grey as the Cape Town skies were this morning.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo