India's surprise moves turn into damp squib

'We gave away 25-30 runs extra' - Bhuvneshwar (1:17)

Bhuvneshwar Kumar believes India gave extra runs to South Africa at the tail-end of the first innings but says the match is evenly poised (1:17)

Same attack, but why are India so hopeful? That was the question asked in these pages in the build-up to the series. Since no one in the India team management is open enough to actually talk about these things, one of the reasons speculated upon was the vastly improved fitness of the bowlers, and the experience they have earnt over the last four years. Then again, you wondered how they would fare under two circumstances: the pressure of expectations, and when required to correct their lines and lengths to conditions where you can't bowl at the stumps or short of a length. And the third question: spinners at home kept compensating for the slips at slips; what will the fast bowlers do if there are catches dropped now?

Despite the start provided by Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the answer lay in the run rate at which South Africa went in difficult batting conditions, which has left India an immeasurably long way back from a stutter with the bat. Mohammed Shami began with the same problems he had in Australia in 2014-15: bowling the Asia line, on the stumps. He was also too short too often, which is the length that hits the stumps in Asia.

A bigger culprit was Jasprit Bumrah, a shocking selection in the squad - forget the XI - given he has not played first-class cricket in a year. Bumrah is an intelligent young bowler. He has a hyper-flexible arm, which makes his variations difficult to pick. He is the best quick going around in limited-overs cricket. His coaches, his mentors, his team-mates all talk about how quick a learner he is. He is, however, not that quick a learner that he will rock up in South Africa, having not bowled more than 10 overs a day in more than a year, not having had to work out a batsman not under pressure of scoring a run a ball, and five net sessions later become the messiah to save India.

It is unfair really on Bumrah as it was on Karn Sharma back at the start of the Australia tour of 2014-15. He had come to renown through IPL, and with just 66 wickets to his name in 34 matches, poor Karn was thrown into Test cricket on a hiding to nothing. It was the last Test he played. His figures in his first innings - 2 for 143, economy rate of 4.33 - might look worse than Bumrah's 1 for 73 at 3.84 an over, but Karn's effort came on a batting beauty in Australia's score of 517 for 7 declared. Given the conditions and the context, Bumrah actually returned a worse analysis than Karn.

Bumrah bowled largely ODI lengths: right up or short of a length. According to ESPNcricinfo's logs, 74 of the 114 balls he bowled were either full or short of a length. Only 30 deliveries were in the business area of this pitch: the good length.

If Bumrah was a selection that smacked of desperation and hope more than a plan, Hardik Pandya was a meticulous plan that was started during the home series against England last season but was delayed by injury. Still Pandya debuted in Sri Lanka in the middle of 2017, and was rested for the return home series so that he could be fresh for this tour. He has been preparing to be a Test bowler, and it showed for a while. In the first halves of their days, Pandya was a better Test bowler than Bumrah, bowling that length that drew the batsmen forward but still denied them the drive.

However, where Pandya began to err, even before the Faf du Plessis wicket he got, was not putting together good overs. The 28th over was a good example. His slightly lesser pace and the length drew drives, the backswing on the seam made the ball dip, and the first ball of the over took the edge only to avoid the slips. The next four balls were bowled on a length, and du Plessis had to stay honest. And then he bowled a long-volley. Voila! Eight runs from the over, and the run rate is well over four now.

"If we want to be hard on ourselves, then, yes, we did give away a few too many runs to South Africa," Bhuvneshwar later said. "I think they scored 25-30 odd extra runs. In every hour of play, there were two-three overs where we gave them easy boundaries in one over. That is an area we can improve on.

"It is something of a concern for us. During the breaks also we were talking about bringing the run rate down because, in Test cricket, four runs per over is huge. This is something we want to improve in the next innings, but overall we are happy with the lines and lengths we bowled."

During the de Villiers-du Plessis partnership, which was before Shami made somewhat of a comeback, and which was well before R Ashwin could even be thought of, it seemed India had fielded a one-man attack. Just to make matters worse, Shikhar Dhawan - selected ahead of KL Rahul - dropped a sitter at slip. At home, it is okay. You drop one, we'll cook another. When you drop on the road, though, things like this happen: the next Keshav Maharaj chance came after he added 35 crucial runs and had been part of partnerships worth 19 and 37. Just like the other bowlers' lines and lengths, Bhuvneshwar could present only a feeble defence of his slip cordon.

We were promised this was a much-changed Indian team, but on the first day of the series the only thing changed was that conservative XI selection gave way to one of the most controversial ones. Two of them - Bumrah and Dhawan - have failed to rub the magic lamp hard enough. Now India need nothing short of a miracle from the third, Rohit Sharma, to stay alive in this Test.