Mixed feelings for Dhoni after South Africa Tests
This 1-0 series defeat for India has in many ways exceeded the expectations off this young and inexperienced team, but MS Dhoni knows they had put themselves in positions to do much better. At the Wanderers they had almost batted South Africa out of the game, but then witnessed a miraculous comeback that nearly left them beaten. At Kingsmead, India were 198 for 1 on a flat pitch but still ended up losing a Test that was shortened by rain and bad light.
Dhoni didn't reveal what his expectations from this tour were when asked to rate his side's performance against what he wanted from the trip. "We performed really well," Dhoni said. "There were a couple of sessions where we played badly and that had an impact on both the Test matches. Even in the last Test, we were in position of bother by stumps on last day. In this Test match also we started off well. Just one session where we were off target. As the players play more Tests and get more experience, they will make sure that it's important to capitalise when the bowlers are tired. That's when you get your free Test runs. So important to capitalise."
When pushed about whether he felt his side had done better than expected, all Dhoni said was: "Fantastic performance, [but] yes, we could have done better."
The two bad sessions that Dhoni mentioned were the middle session of the final day in Johannesburg when they couldn't separate Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers, and the first session of the final day in Durban when they lost five wickets. There was also a contentious spell of play on day four when India didn't take the new ball in order to slow down South Africa's scoring. Rahul Dravid, among others, felt India should have shown more intent and gone for the wickets to slow the pace down naturally. Dhoni's explanation for playing the waiting game with the softer ball that wouldn't travel off the bat hinted at the fast bowlers' shortcomings.
"What will we do with the new ball?" Dhoni asked. "Can't swing it. Who will bowl the 25 overs to get it to reverse? [Ravindra] Jadeja won't be effective because it's hard and new, so you have to see what your strength is and take a decision. No point. Yes it [the match] started on the 26th, it's Christmas time, but I am not Santa to let them score freely, and say, 'We won't bat for four sessions, we are ready to bat for six sessions.' It's about strategy and what works for you."
The India bowlers had bowled a lot in Johannesburg, and were back playing in the hot and humid Durban three days later. The energy was clearly down. Possibly Dhoni worried about those 25 overs with lower intensity, and wondered who would be fresh to bowl if it started reversing after those 25 overs. He also pointed out another shortcoming in the attack.
When asked about where this young team was headed, Dhoni said: "Just need to talk about the last two Tests. Plenty of positives, batting department is looking good, ingredients are good. Bowling department, we still need to work on how to bowl on dry surfaces outside the subcontinent and where you need to bend your back and hit the surface hard. That is one area where we need to slightly improve."
Dhoni also said that India needed to convert moments of ascendancy into results, because Tests can be a lost in a session. This is the third time India went into the final Test in South Africa with a chance to win the series, but their third innings let them down. "If you have an upper hand, [you must] make sure you capitalise on that," Dhoni said. "On certain occasions, I felt that we were not able to capitalise on the upper hand. So these are a few areas we need to work on and keep improving."
It was mixed feelings for Dhoni after the series. He knew his side had not been given a chance, but he also knew they had put themselves in positions to win the series. Dhoni was hopeful about the future based on what he saw in South Africa. "The more Test matches that you play, you get more experience," Dhoni said. "This side, overall you talk about making some recipe, all the ingredients are there. This series we didn't cook the food well. But apart from that we have got fantastic ingredients. Just have to make sure we are cooking the right way. Overall, 15-17 member squad is looked good; batting looked good, bowlers worked hard. When something was on offer, in Johannesburg, they were able to get the opposition out. Good exposure for most of the batsmen and bowlers who were touring for the first time."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo