India's batsmen deserve better fast-bowling support
On paper, India didn't win anything on this tour. They lost the ODI series 2-0, and would most likely have lost the third match had rain not interrupted. They lost the Test series 1-0. Between the end of the ODIs and the end of the Tests, though, India gained a lot. They showed they could compete against South Africa in South Africa. They pushed the world's best Test side, which had two world-class allrounders in Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers, to its absolute limit in Johannesburg. They showed they have the batting to win overseas Tests if they can find fit, robust and skillful fast bowlers.
The same had been the case with the Indian team for the last 10 years, but there were doubts now that the big batsmen were gone. This young batch, though, showed that the batting is in safe hands. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane were the shining lights. Back in 1996-97, when Rahul Dravid came to South Africa for his first tour, Sachin Tendulkar told him he would have done well if he could get 250 runs. That was a three-Test series. In this two-match fling, Pujara, Kohli and Rahane have managed 280, 272 and 209 respectively. M Vijay did his job too as an opener, seeing off the new ball with commendable discipline, but he will be disappointed he didn't convert one of those innings into a big hundred.
It is not all about the runs, though. It is the manner they were scored in. The likes of Dravid and Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman took about three-four tours to display the kind of maturity, awareness and comfort with their own games that Pujara, Kohli and Rahane have shown here. There were no crazy counterattacks or unorthodox hitting. This was proper Test-match batting, minimising the risks, against the world's deadliest bowlers. None of the three looked scarred or scared. There will be concerns about Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, but they must be given time to work on their games and come back tighter.
What will bother India more, though, is that there was no contribution from No. 7 onwards. MS Dhoni is conscious of his shortcomings when outside Asia, and he has been working on them - he was practising with the red ball even during the ODIs - but he will be the first to admit he needs to do more. He has had a few important contributions outside Asia in the past, but will need to be more consistent over the next year if he is to match up with other number sevens around the world.
After the series, Dhoni admitted that the lower order was a problem, and that it would take them time to start contributing the way they used to when India were No. 1. Zaheer Khan will have to immediately start batting like he did in the second innings - more than an hour of getting behind the line of the ball - as opposed to what he did in the first - a golden duck to a wild heave from as far away from the line of the ball as he could be.
R Ashwin provides India solid hope coming in at No. 8, but he will now have to compete for that sole spinner's position with Ravindra Jadeja, who has been another big gain for India. He bowled 58.3 overs in an innings for his six wickets even as South Africa batted comfortably against the rest of the bowlers. He will definitely be part of India's plans when they play the first Test in new Zealand, in Auckland on February 6. It doesn't make Ashwin a bad bowler, but it gives India a horses-for-courses option, which is thanks to the trust shown by them in Jadeja.
In Durban, though, Jadeja was left fighting a lone battle. On a flat pitch, it needed a big effort from India's quicks to save the Test, the kind Dale Steyn put in. It was not to be. Zaheer Khan, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma were knackered after their gigantic push for a win in Johannesburg. The intensity was visibly low. Dhoni was so circumspect about them he could have kept bowling with the old ball had they not been forced to take a new one after 146 overs.
Fast bowling remains India's biggest worry. Zaheer made a stellar comeback in Johannesburg, Shami was excellent with his seam position there, and Ishant tried hard as usual, but they showed they were not as versatile and strong as they needed to be. The statistics have been damning. They might have done better than the numbers suggest, but they couldn't have been much better than averages of 63 (Ishant), 46 (Zaheer) and 44 (Shami).
India will need to look at Zaheer's durability and endurance again, especially if he doesn't offer much with the bat. The big problem is, India don't really have many options. Ishant had to be drafted in because the first choice, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, wasn't going to work on pitches that weren't slow. Shami is surely one for the future, but Ishant will have to deliver a bagful of wickets sooner than later.
India have for long been a batting-dominated team with their superstar batsmen collecting most of the accolades and the blame, but this might not be a bad time to give this new crop of promising batsmen bowlers who will get them 20 wickets. Where they will come from is anybody's guess.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo