Defensive India pay the price
This series will be remembered for many high-quality passages of play both with the bat and the ball - moments, spells, hours, days of individual brilliance - but for every such passage you will find uninspiring spells of defensive captaincy from both camps. The template was set on the first day of the series when Sachin Tendulkar - with the score 40 for 3 on a damp pitch - pulled Lonwabo Tsotsobe for a four. It was a calculated risk, a shot that avoided midwicket not by much, but Graeme Smith responded by sending the fielder back to the boundary.
By the time the teams came to the decider, the captains were trying to outdo each other. In the first innings of this game, MS Dhoni refused to try and get Jacques Kallis out after a Sreesanth burst in the middle of the innings. In the second, with batting even more difficult, and with Tendulkar having to struggle for longer than Kallis did, it took just one six from Harbhajan Singh for Smith to spread the field out. And this when Dale Steyn was bowling one of the spells of our times.
Dhoni might just end up with the last word here, though, with what could be a decisive show of defensive captaincy on the fourth day. It was quite extraordinary that an injured Kallis walked out in the second innings, with the score effectively reading 51 for 3, soon to become 62 for 4, with a long-on in place. Harbhajan, at that moment, was exploiting the rough outside off appreciably. His bowling figures were 4 for 10, and Kallis was starting out on a fresh innings. Soon Kallis reverse-swept him, a brilliant, calculated shot all right, but one that involved risk. The man that went from short third man to collect the ball from the boundary was asked to stay back there. After just one boundary. In a remarkable show of following the ball, that deep fielder kept moving to wherever the previous shot went, and Kallis had established the psychological upper hand already.
This is to take nothing away from a superb century under pressure and in pain, but Kallis couldn't have asked for anything better at that point of time than the easy singles down to long-on. It was quite similar to what India did to Thilan Samaraweera in the deciding Test of their Sri Lanka tour earlier this year. On the fourth day at the P Sara Oval, India had taken five second-innings wickets for 24 runs, reducing Sri Lanka to effectively 76 for 7, and Samaraweera was 4 when Lasith Malinga came out to join him. It took one boundary from him to open up the easy-single route to sweeper-cover, and another hit over mid-off to spread the field for good. The last three wickets then added 180 runs, and it took special innings from VVS Laxman and Tendulkar to level the series.
Not learning a lesson, India perhaps took it a step further here. Kallis was not even batting with the tail; he started off with Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Ashwell Prince and Mark Boucher. Of the four, de Villiers, too, was shown remarkable respect when he was welcomed with a long-on in place already. Why not ask a batsman to clear mid-on on a pitch that is offering you turn and variable bounce? Sadly, as Smith and other modern captains have shown over the years, this is not a problem with India and Dhoni alone. The moment they see a lesser batsman, they choose to attack only one of the two men batting, and invariably they get only two balls an over where they are actually trying to take wickets.
Boucher, one of the beneficiaries of India's defensive field-sets, gave an insight into modern captains' mindsets. "Not really [not surprised at those fields]," he said. "We have been in that situation as well before. I came out looking to play aggressively, I had an aggressive mindset. I think in the back of a captain's mind, you don't want to give away many boundaries. If there's stuff happening out there, you'd rather have catchers and in-and-out fields. Like I said, to protect the boundaries, and make the guys work the singles."
They are all worried about tailenders - admittedly better batsmen than the breed used to be in the era before heavy bats and protective cushioning on their bodies - adding quick runs, and the recognised batsman counterattacking. In the process they tell the opposition, they are worried and nervous. The bowlers start responding accordingly; it can't be easy from bowling defensively to one batsman and aggressively to the other. That's what happened with India today: they spent the last two sessions confused, conceding 220 runs for five wickets.
Four years ago, when India came to Cape Town, they went in to lunch on fourth day with two second-innings wickets down and a lead of 114 in the bag. The next two sessions featured confused cricket, and India lost the series there. Here, too, going into lunch India had South Africa effectively at 119 for 5, soon to be 130 for 6. But the rest of the day almost played India out of the Test. Now it's up to the Indian batsmen to put in yet another special show to prevent a repeat.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo