India in South Africa 2013-14 December 23, 2013

Can India maintain their intensity?

India's bowlers ran themselves into the ground in their effort to win the Johannesburg Test. In three days' time, they may have to do it all over again

Playing his first Test in a year, Zaheer Khan bowled 60.3 high-intensity overs at the Wanderers, eight of them in one spell after tea on the final day. That's nine more than he has ever bowled in a Test match. He is 35 now.

Ishant Sharma - say what you will about his bowling and his consistency - bowled 54 overs for his five wickets, his strikes in both innings bringing India back from the brink. He will always run in for his captain, he will always throw himself at the ball, he will always try to get behind the line when batting. That - and not just the lack of options - is why he has played 50 Tests for India.

Mohammed Shami bowled 46 overs. He was the most threatening of the lot, but possibly didn't get as many overs because he was in only his third Test and also needed to stay fresh to stay at his most threatening.

In three days' time, it is quite possible that the same three will be asked to bowl again. If Kingsmead rolls out a greentop, MS Dhoni will have to think twice before putting South Africa in because of this workload. The cost of competing against the best side in the world, and the most resilient one too, in a gruelling Test, has been high. This Test was longer than India's last Test series. India have put in less effort to win series. They must be wondering what else they need to do to beat South Africa in South Africa. Somehow, though, if India can maintain this kind of fitness, intensity and skill while bowling, this cost, or rather their willingness to pay it, might be India's biggest gain from this series.

They needed a spark, which came through Virat Kohli's hundred on the first day, but after a collapse and a strong South African start later, India were staring at a familiar scenario playing itself out: that of not keeping at it long enough in an away Test. The bowlers, though, kept at it. The results came. A lead was secured. In the second dig, the batsmen all but batted South Africa out. They gave the bowlers 135 overs to bowl South Africa out. India hadn't even required the second new ball in the first.

You look at the scorecard and see seven wickets falling in all those overs - two of them run-outs, one an ordinary lbw decision - and you might say it all did return to type. That, though, would be as unjust to India's efforts, and indeed to their skill with the ball, as it would be to South Africa's great will to fight. There wasn't much that India did wrong in that attempt to win. It might be said that had more time been available South Africa would have won this one, but it was India who consciously killed that time off by batting long in their second innings.

If we were to pick nits, that period of batting on the fourth morning when India just batted without direction in order to kill off three hours was when India didn't think straight. Not giving South Africa enough time was all good, but had they gone a little quicker they wouldn't have had to worry about saving the Test in the end. This isn't criticism in hindsight: India drew the match anyway.

When India usually concede 312 for 5 in a day's play, their bowlers and fielders are all over the place. Here they were at the batsmen. Du Plessis will tell you this was not easy.

The bowling itself will be worse on many days and will still bowl teams out. Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers played gems, but questions were asked of them throughout. India have been guilty, in the past, of spreading the fields far and wide in the face of a slight counterattack, but it didn't happen here. Dhoni tried to make sure there was a fielder in place should his bowlers produce the edge. The edges all evaded fielders, though. When India usually concede 312 for 5 in a day's play, their bowlers and fielders are all over the place. Here they were at the batsmen. Du Plessis will tell you this was not easy.

R Ashwin's role will come into question, but he didn't bowl too badly either. Perhaps he should have stuck to his role of holding one end up - his economy rate of 2.3 over 36 overs suggests he did - but when wickets are not falling, you sometimes get desperate. He didn't come too close to getting a wicket, though, and that will concern him. This was the first time he had runs to play with in an away Test. He will be disappointed in that regard, but he wasn't way off the mark with his bowling.

It was only in that final session that signs of tired Indian fingers and shoulders began to appear. Zaheer began bowling short and wide, going for three boundaries in the first three overs of that spell, but bowled an eight-over spell to try to set things right. During this spell he could have had de Villiers lbw, but he himself didn't go up properly. Herein might lie Dhoni's only questionable move of the day. Bowling Zaheer for so long kept Shami away. He was on the field, he was fit, but Dhoni went 34 overs and a tea break without bowling him. Possibly Dhoni didn't trust this inexperienced bowler. Possibly he was waiting for one wicket to fall so he could unleash a fresh bowler who - if he didn't get a couple of wickets - would at least shut the scoring down.

The fielding, though, remained top-notch. Even Zaheer kept diving to save singles. When the run-out opportunity came, India took it. Kohli spoke of that desperation after the draw. "Every single person in this team is hungry to go out there and win a game for their country and their team," he said. "That is the biggest factor that has changed the way we played in the last one year. It is because everyone is hungry and desperate to go out there and perform and win from any situation. That's what this team believes in, that we can win from any situation."

Towards the end, Dhoni had to ask South Africa if they wanted to go for it. Those three overs was the only time India really spread the field - they even bowled one more over than they were required to. Dhoni asked Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn if they wanted to be heroes and risk losing it all. They didn't. Neither side can be blamed considering what was at stake.

There will be obvious disappointment that they couldn't win from this situation, but India made South Africa reach into their deepest reserves in their home conditions after a season during which they hadn't let a single Test reach the fifth day. Both teams will have to pick themselves up pretty fast, India more so than South Africa because there aren't many instances of their bowlers doing well in back-to-back Tests outside Asia.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy on December 25, 2013, 8:26 GMT

    Is the pressure more on SA than on India? Believe lots of questions asked why they didn't go for the kill and win the test game and given Kingsmead not their favourite ground, SAffers need to get out of the mental block and start afresh else risk losing, in my mind!

  • moginraj on December 25, 2013, 7:31 GMT

    @Greatest_Game .... i wish you had some perspective.... ur so called "best" attack could not take a wicket for a long period in the 2nd innings, and only after india started to attack were you able to get wickets!!! so why do u expect the indian so called "worst" attack to take wickets??? its nice to talk in a vaccum!!!

  • VaRUN on December 25, 2013, 5:42 GMT

    @ Greatest_Game - Indian team is psychologically broken? That has to be the joke of the year because every three year old kid in India knows that the Indian bowling is very weak and it's hard to win games overseas. This test, it's up to the 'best bowling attack' in the world to deliver. It has been found out that SA bowling is very one dimensional( two feet outside off stump line), they were so out of ideas as soon as the Indian batting started leaving deliveries outside off stump unlike the previous Indian teams. This team doesn't have Sehwag, Sachin, Ganguly, Gambhir to poke outside the off stump line.

    SA win a lot of inconsequential bi-lateral test series to gain # 1 ranking.We all know what happens when SA is under the pump and in the next test,they will certainly be under a lot of pressure.

  • Asif on December 25, 2013, 5:05 GMT

    Agree with some of the posts here-India dint hv the bowling fire power to take 20 wickets. They shud seriously consider 4 pacer combination with Ashwin. Zaheer is indispensable, Shami has good pace. But bothe prob need a lighter load. If pitch looks like aiding swing, good idea to have Bhuvi and Umesh, give Ishant a break (tho he was good in first test). Trust Ashwin to come good in second test and he's better bat than Ojha or Jadeja.

  • David on December 25, 2013, 4:21 GMT

    All these Indian posters predicting victory, do you know anything about cricket? India just escaped with a draw, & could not bowl out SA in over 4 sessions with a 458 run lead. India were playing a 10 man team & could not take 20 wickets. Get real. India surprised most by punching above their weight, but after being thrashed in the ODIs & demoralised after being saved by the bell, they are psychologically broken. They know they gave everything, did their all, played really really well, but could still not beat the Proteas.

    What will it take for them to win? A 650 run lead? How do they take 20 wickets when SA knuckle down? What else can they do? They did all they could, & it was not nearly enough. Look what happened at home vs Eng. 1 loss & India folded for the series.

    On the other hand, SA played well below their usual level. They know that India can't beat them when they are a man down and playing at 50%. The 1st test woke them up. Now they want blood. Expect it. It won't be pretty!

  • TR on December 25, 2013, 2:09 GMT

    @Lodhisingh, yes, I do say Ashwin & RSharma should be dropped. ( at least as a one match punishment). IMO, they should know that if they are not focused in the fielding they will be dropped from the team. Settled Indian players seem to take things for granted. I used to comment against Harbajan, Sehwag, Zaheer etc for the same fielding reason.


    A poor fielder demoralizes the whole team. India lost 4-0 in Aus/Eng because of awful poor fielding of seniors. You know the result of one Imran Tahir's dropped catch last match.

    Having said all that, I think Dhoni will keep the same team. After all, He has recalled the great Ishant Sharma even after a match reversing 30+ runs an over.

  • Dummy4 on December 25, 2013, 0:41 GMT

    Ashwin like HS before him will not be a Kumble abroad. I think INdia had better shot with Jadeja a better fielder or Ojha a better bowler. If Duminy picked wickets even Imran picked wickets and Ashwins was a sorry performance. In such a close match I would blame him for the draw and not winning. He like Sehwag and Gambir is good on dust tracks in asia and not in conditions like SA-sooner the management realizes better for them

  • t on December 25, 2013, 0:17 GMT

    remember the next test is just 3 days gap. if we go with same team & we have to bowl 1st then they'll easily make 350+ in 1st innings with the tired bodies that they'll have.

    lets not forget South Africa's fighting draw in Adelaide eventually led to them winning the next Test in Perth so we have to be careful. also here they were complacent thinking that they'd just have to turn up & they'd win so we caught them napping. they're going to come at us strongly

    best team would be Ojha, Bhuvi, Shami, Umesh

  • t on December 25, 2013, 0:14 GMT

    as well as they bowled in 1st inngs & as hard as they toiled in the 2nd you have to question Zak & Ishant not being that effective on that pitch which wasnt a dead pitch like the nagpur one againt Eng. fitness of both is also suspect as they were bowling <130 on 5th day. zak then too can get away with that coz he relies more on skills but Ishant is only effective if he hits the deck hard & he doesnt have the excuse of being a 35 yr old. shami was the only one who looked like getting a wicket & dhoni did his usual inexplicable thing of bowling him the least from the 3. also, surprising to see no yorkers from them at any stage. zak coming round the wicket from ball 1 to last is also very strange. the challenging angle of a left armer was gone, he negated the lbw that way & also his footmarks coming over the wicket might've helped ashwin.

  • Dummy4 on December 24, 2013, 21:57 GMT

    India has spent all its intensity. I predict India would lose by an Innings in 2nd Test. Kalis will be a huge star with Bat and Ball. I hope Umpires that favored India in 1st Test stay Neutral. Without DRS they need the best umpires, like Dar, Dharmasena, where are they?

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