Any hopes of India turning the corner after the Twenty20 victory was quickly dispelled as South Africa drubbed them by nine wickets to seal a hopelessly one-sided series 4-0. India batted through their 50 overs for the first time in the series, but their total of 200 for 9 was completely inadequate on a belter. However, South Africa showed just good the pitch was for batting as they cruised home in 31.2 overs, with Graeme Smith returning to form with an emphatic 79 and AB de Villiers stroking a delightful unbeaten 92, his highest score in ODIs.
In another mismatch, India had very small crumbs for comfort - Sachin Tendulkar overcame an uncertain start and finally found some touch, getting to 55, his 74th ODI half-century but only his second fifty-plus score in 20 matches against South Africa in South Africa. Mahendra Singh Dhoni got among the runs too, but the manner in which Smith and de Villiers smashed the bowlers all around the park highlighted the huge gulf in class between the bowlers from the two sides: led by the magnificent Shaun Pollock, the South Africans were their usual miserly self in the field, allowing the already beleaguered Indians no freebies.
The Indian bowlers, on the other hand, were clueless about how to stop the marauding openers. Zaheer Khan has utterly dominated Smith on this tour, but South Africa cleverly decided to have de Villiers face the first ball this time. Smith, meanwhile, helped himself to plenty of boundaries from a radarless Sreesanth - a cover-drive and a flick in Sreesanth's first over got him going, and there was no looking back. By the time Smith finally faced Zaheer for the first time in the match - in the ninth over - he had already made 21 from 17 balls.
De Villiers, meanwhile, creamed the boundaries in an utterly pleasing knock. Quite comfortable against Zaheer, he started off with an exquisite cover-drive off the third ball of the innings, and continued in similar vein, driving crisply off the front foot and timing the ball quite spectacularly. India's one chance to break through came early, but Mohammad Kaif made a mess of a regulation chance when de Villiers was on 9.
South Africa had 88 on the board after the first 15, and with Sehwag deciding to pack the infield almost throughout the innings, the batsmen had it their way all through. Smith strode down the pitch to Irfan Pathan and took some revenge on Zaheer, hoicking them both for straight sixes. When he fell attempting another six, South Africa were so utterly in control that Pollock strode out at No.3 and immediately looked at home.
The Indian innings, on the other hand, was a struggle almost throughout. Smith won his fifth toss in a row but this time decided to put India in, and though Sehwag was all smiles and said he would have batted first anyway, it was soon the same story as all the batsmen found Pollock and Ntini too tough to handle.
Sehwag's technique outside off was soon exposed by the relentless Pollock, who nailed him for the sixth time in ODIs, while Laxman's initiation here was even more forgettable, as he hung his bat out limply outside off and edged his first ball to slip. Tendulkar, meanwhile, was in all sorts of discomfort. Struggling to find his footwork, he repeatedly played from the crease and was beaten by the movement. Ntini cut him in half with one that dipped back, while the steep bounce consistently had him jumping up and defending uncomfortably. After 15 overs, India's score read a miserable 26 for 2.
Having spent considerable time at the crease - he scored 4 from his first 39 balls - Tendulkar finally began to find his groove. The first sign of that came in the 18th over, when he struck Kallis for two super fours - a pull to midwicket and a trademark on-drive. The footwork gradually improved, as did the confidence to attempt more aggressive strokes, and the introduction of Peterson only helped matters, as Tendulkar unveiled the inside-out drive over extra-cover and the fine sweep.
Andre Nel briefly had him in some bother, hitting his arm with a short one that didn't bounce as much as Tendulkar expected it to - and forced him to stay off the field in the afternoon - but he soon after he got his half-century, with his last 51 runs taking just 58 balls.
Mongia played his part well in an 85-run partnership for the third wicket, while Dhoni lashed some huge blows and finally injected some momentum into a limp innings with a 48-ball 44 during the course of which he drove Nel to distraction. Nel got hit for a few by Dhoni, but he finally came up with an outstanding catch to dismiss Dhoni as India touched 200 for the first time. On a flat batting pitch, though, it seemed well short of par score, and so it proved in the afternoon.
It was India's first defeat against South Africa at Centurion, having beaten them twice before this. With the Test series still 12 days away, India have plenty of soul-searching to do before getting into that contest.