South Africa's Durban blues
Once; it can be considered an unhappy accident. Twice; it's starting to look a little suspicious. But three times? It's a problem. The last thing South Africa want is to carry around another unflattering label, but it seems as though they've earned one. The Durban ducks. Sitting ducks that is.
For three consecutive Tests, South Africa have been shot down at Kingsmead. All three times they were undone by the opposition's bowling attack. Two seasons ago, Mitchell Johnson did the damage, last season Graeme Swann and this time an Indian bowling attack, spearheaded by Zaheer Khan. There's just got to be something about Durban that snags the South Africa batsmen, something that suddenly makes a home ground appear totally foreign to men that play on it at least once a year.
Kingsmead has a unique combination of bounce and swing that can't be found at any other venue in South Africa, and perhaps even around the world. It is the bounciest track in the country, has a fair bit of pace, and, with the humidity around, is also a great facilitator of swing. What that means is that, unless the sun has been out in full force for a substantial amount of time, scoring runs is quite a difficult task.
Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, knows this. "It was a wicket that you needed to graft hard on. It was a tough wicket to bat freely on. You really needed to grind things out," he said at the post-match press conference. Every batsman and even most bowlers interviewed before and during this Test match had one word to summarise how anyone should approach batting on this track: patience. VVS Laxman even provided a demonstration during both India's innings of how to approach playing here. South Africa, barring Ashwell Prince's 39 off 108 balls, could not do the same.
They were undone in their first innings by a class act from Zaheer, who doesn't have express pace but is able to move the ball and use variation to his advantage. Harbhajan Singh was always going to be a threat on a bouncy wicket, as those are the pitches he most enjoys, and he was successful in both innings. The biggest surprise for South Africa came from Sreesanth, who removed Smith with a combination of hostile bowling and hostile talking and then dismissed Jacques Kallis with a steeply bouncing ball that he had no choice but to fend to gully.
It proved that it's not just the Indians who struggle to cope with extra bounce; it's the South Africans too. Perhaps it's simply a case of any batsman anywhere in the world being uncomfortable with too much bounce because pitches have become much tamer over the years.
Bounce looked like one of the chief culprits of South Africa's poor batting performance, but Smith was adamant that it's not that factor that has been their nemesis at Durban over the years. "I don't think it's been the pace and bounce in the last few Tests. We've played well at the Wanderers and other places around the world." Smith wouldn't even concede that Zaheer exposed South Africa to be as vulnerable against the moving ball as they thought India would be. All Smith admitted was that movement played a role in last season's poor performance. "There was reverse swing against England."
Smith's firm belief is that South Africa "just haven't played well in Durban." Besides admitting that there was poor shot selection and that "we were a little bit loose at times", he would go no further. "It's as simple as that." But is it?
South Africa came into this Test match bullish after their thrashing of India in Centurion. They were convinced that they had unlocked the key to India's weakness once again - the short ball, a responsive pitch and some riled up seamers. They thought Durban would offer up much of the same. Like India, South Africa had two days off before preparing for the match, but unlike India, they didn't feel as though they would have to answer for themselves and their ranking in world cricket, and so maybe, they didn't need to care as much.
South Africa knew Zaheer would be back, but they didn't seem to adjust to that reality until after his destructive first-innings performance. He is unplayable when he gets things right on his day, but South Africa didn't offer much fight early on. They improved in the second innings, when conditions were better to bat on, but they still played some careless shots. Smith and Co. acknowledged they weren't good enough. Whether they know why they weren't is another question, one that may only be answered the next time they come to Kingsmead.
No doubt, South Africa will go to Cape Town smarting. It's a venue where they have a good record and where the pitch often favours batsmen. It's likely to be hard and flat, although there will be some moisture around that may provide some swing. The more batsman-friendly conditions will give them some comfort, but not too much. The knowledge that India are much better away from home than they were three years ago should keep South Africa on edge.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent