India's bowlers struggle to adapt
Towards the end of South Africa's training session a day before the Johannesburg ODI, coach Russell Domingo asked a few volunteers to go deep into the outdoor practice facility at the Wanderers. "JP [Duminy] is going to hit long balls. We'll need somebody to retrieve them," he said. This was a pretty simple exercise. Domingo was giving Duminy throwdowns. He gave Duminy straight length balls at an average pace, Duminy opened up his front leg, and swung through the line of them. And he actually hit them long. This was all about getting the swing right, it seemed. So all he wanted was those straight length balls without much menace. It turned out to be the perfect replication of what Duminy would face from the India bowlers out in the middle come match day.
Even before India reached the stage where Duminy and AB de Villiers hit them at will, taking 100 runs in the last six overs, their bowlers had ceded the advantage of winning the toss when the pitch was green and dew was expected later in the evening. To say that the poor bowling and the consequent high total made the Indian batting look worse than they might be might sound a bit harsh on the bowlers playing their first internationals in South Africa, without any practice games, with little preparation time, but it is clear that the bigger bridge between the two sides is their bowling and not the batting. India's home success over the last year has been built on the slowness of the pitches, and their bowlers have it all to do when the bounce is true and the ball comes on.
The opening bowlers Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohit Sharma bowled a bit like R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha did during the home series against England last year: put the ball there, and expect the conditions to do the rest. When the half-volleys were put away, they overcompensated, and at their pace were easy to put away for runs. Mohit did make a good comeback when he produced chances from both the South African openers in one over, but that over proved to be an exception. Once the new balls had been wasted, Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja were worked away easily, and the final statement from de Villiers and Duminy was emphatic.
For years the great Indian batting line-up compensated for an ordinary bowling attack, and drew all the flak when they couldn't. Now, with both departments almost starting afresh, might be time the expectations were more even. The likes of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan will be criticised much more than the bowlers because they have raised the expectations with exceptional numbers in the home season.
Thanks to them, India got away with conceding 300 nearly every time at home, but they cannot afford to go for 300 on pitches that have assistance for the quicks. "Overall it was a bad performance," said the captain MS Dhoni, not mincing words. "It started with the bowlers initially. This was not really a 350-plus wicket. We didn't start well. We were supposed to bowl it up, and the wicket would have done the rest. We didn't get the kind of start that was needed. At the same time we should have backed it up with some good batting, but we weren't able to do it."
By the time South African got hold of the two new balls, they got it to seam, swing, bounce and whiz through. Dhoni might have preferred pitching it up and expecting the pitch to do the rest because the Indian bowlers don't have the pace to bowl short, but Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were not just putting it there, they were forcing out all the assistance from the pitch. That combined with the high total left the batsmen a difficult choice between either letting the asking rate go too high or playing low-percentage shots.
"They know the conditions better than us," Dhoni said. "They know what lengths to bowl. That is one of the reasons why I want our bowlers to step up, so that you don't give away 300 runs. That puts pressure on the batsmen, because they have to go after the bowling right from the first ball, which was not easy on this wicket against bowlers like Dale Steyn. If you see how he bowled to Rohit, he didn't move away from the good areas."
Dhoni and coach Duncan Fletcher are big fans of good areas and performing within the limitations, but the answer might not lie just in the good areas. Mohammed Shami clearly hit the pitch harder than the opening bowlers, and he produced better results. South African conditions are difficult for batting, but they are not quite as overcast as England or New Zealand where the ball can do things by itself. You have to coax it out of the surfaces, otherwise the quick and small outfields can be quite unforgiving.
If India can change their bowling philosophy during a watertight tour and deliver the results, it will be an incredible achievement. Otherwise we will be back to expecting the batsmen to clean up after the bowlers.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo