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South Africa undone by Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, and the spectre of the past

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Agarkar: Bumrah bowling rockets like in recent times (0:57)

Ajit Agarkar says that India's bowlers have done exactly what Virat Kohli will have wanted in the opening overs against South Africa (0:57)

The day before the game, Faf du Plessis jokingly spoke of feeling "haunted". Not so jokingly, he admitted part of his job was to stop players from tumbling into a "self-pity cycle". The World Cup had barely started, but two losses in and three frontline fast bowlers out, apprehension had gripped the campaign. This is normally the part of the tournament where South Africa are supposed to fearlessly scale the heights they will later dramatically plunge from. But instead of failure at the high-tension end of the World Cup (and because everything South Africa is viewed through this particular lens), real fear had built that despite the years of planning, something new and in some ways more galling was unfolding: an all-in, tournament-long, team-wide choke.

This was all before a single ball was even bowled at Southampton, although by the time it was, stands had filled to groaning with partisan India fans, which cannot have helped the collective South African blood pressure. But, you never know, maybe once the game actually begins, the nerves will settle, and it will all seem like just another game, right? Wrong. Forget it. That's not how it works for South Africa at these things.

WATCH - Highlights of Chahal's magical spell on Hotstar (India only)

What actually happened is Jasprit Bumrah, a bowler with an all-wrong run-up, bizarre delivery swing, and a gloriously unconventional bowling wit - the exact kind of player South Africa just don't produce - uprooted both openers, and ratcheted the pressure up.

So then, at 37 for 2, 11 overs gone, only 13 players to choose from, hopes on the verge of being dashed, besieged captain batting like he is being physically restrained by invisible shackles - into this moment of profound vulnerability, the threat that South Africa most fear arrived. Some South Africa batsmen have prospered, but collectively, they can pretty much never claim to have had the better of this: high quality spin.

At their last meeting, an ODI series in South Africa in 2018, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal hadn't just bewitched South Africa's batsmen, they had devastated them. Seventeen wickets was Kuldeep's haul over the five matches. Sixteen for Chahal. Following that series, South Africa had introspected, re-worked their approach against wristspin, and, in thumping Sri Lanka twice, might have figured they had actually improved.

But it's never quite that simple for them, is it? That's just not how it works for South Africa at these things.

When Kuldeep and Chahal began, there was an inevitability about the wickets that were about to arrive. Du Plessis against Chahal, prodding, misreading, the ball turning in a direction he did not expect, rattling middle and off. JP Duminy, having shaped to sweep and changed his mind halfway with a shot that betrayed a frazzled mind earlier in the over, now allowing Kuldeep's quicker arm ball to strike him on the pads, right in front of the stumps.

More than any other craft in the sport, there is something unknowable about wristspin. Its greatest-ever purveyors admit to often having no idea what came out of their hands. "If I don't know what I've bowled, the batsman has no chance." The whippage of the wrist, the angle of the seam at release, the the finishing touches imparted by calloused fingertips - every ball comes complete with its own varied set of physical properties, a personality and behaviour all of its own. Maybe this is why, in the age of comprehensive video scouting and rapidly advancing data-analysis, wristspin only becomes more valuable, year-on-year. Even while everything is decrypted, wristspin still seems a kind of magic.

When the bowlers are of the class of Chahal and Kuldeep, they are difficult to plan against. And planning, really, is where South Africa live. Their belief in homework is nearly absolute. In their very constitution, they are more susceptible to the surprising than maybe any other side. The dismissal of Rassie van der Dussen was the most instructive - pre-meditating a reverse sweep against Chahal, van der Dussen spotted the initial line of the delivery and went to his knees, only for the ball to drift rapidly towards leg in the last third of its trajectory, pitching in what seemed an entirely different county from the one he was expecting it in. Bowled around the legs by a ball that barely pitched on leg. Facing your biggest fears; innovating solutions, freeing yourself from anxieties? No, I don't think so. That's just not how it goes for South Africa at these things.

Even if they had truly, honestly upskilled in the year since last facing Chahal and Kuldeep, would it really have helped? Other teams are merely waging battle against their opponents' skill and speed and the pressure they impose. South Africa, more than almost any other sporting outfit on the planet, are also fighting their own history. Sometimes it matters only a little that a South African batsman has fine-tuned his footwork, watched balls from the hand, and worked out a clear strategy on which deliveries to hit where. What matters more is the spectre of the past. A spectre that obliterates the nuance of your own improvement. You are a South Africa batsman. Hence you are weak against spin. So obviously, you will trip all over it at a World Cup.

Between them, Chahal and Kuldeep accounted for five South Africa batsmen - the legspinner responsible for four of them. By the time both bowlers were done with their first spells, the match had swung more or less decisively India's way. Picking up a third straight loss, South Africa found themselves visited by a ghost that had not bedevilled them at this World Cup before. Triumphing over hang-ups? Forget it. That's just not how it goes.