Right ingredients, wrong recipe
India's tour to South Africa should have been a seminal event in Indian cricket. Like other teams, India have always been good at home, but hopelessly incompetent abroad. This looked like the series when that could change, when sporadic brilliance could take that quantum leap towards consistent performance at the highest level.
The ingredients seemed to be in place. India had a battery of promising young pacemen (Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar) to support the ageing warhorses, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad. For the first time since the 70s, India seemed to have two world-class spinners in one team: Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble. The middle order looked formidable, with Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly averaging a combined 188 runs in Test cricket, equal to their Aussie counterparts and well ahead of anybody else. Das looked solid at the top of the order - the quality India had been searching for since Sunil Gavaskar retired.
The captaincy also looked to be in good hands. Ganguly went into this match having won six of his last 11 Tests, an unprecedented success rate for an Indian captain. Despite never having a fully fit team to lead, he had a series win against Australia to his name (albeit at home), and India's first Test win outside the subcontinent in 15 years. A fine man-manager, he inspired loyalty in his team-mates, and had a much-needed natural aggression on the field that no Indian captain had ever had before.
Where did it all go wrong then? Sure, the Indians were a bit unlucky: plagued by injury, they were denied match-practice when both their warm-up games were abandoned. But to ascribe disaster to misfortune is a sure formula for repeating it; India did not just lose, they were walloped, thrashed mercilessly - and the manner of their capitulation was all too familiar.
All the recognised batsmen threw their wickets away, time and time again. There were moments of brilliance from Tendulkar and Laxman, but they should not be lauded, for they did not win any matches - by their very nature, they could not have. To win in sport, one needs character, not just flair. Deep Dasgupta, a man of limited talent but unlimited grit, showed it by gutsing it out against the new ball and saving India the second Test. Imagine Tendulkar or Laxman batting with that kind of application; how many bowlers could actually have earned their wickets? Sadly, neither showed any inclination to play that way, and Laxman's two dismissals in the unofficial 'Test' at Centurion - shockingly irresponsible swipes at wide deliveries - were symbolic of India's approach to the series.
The bowlers, inspired by this incompetence, were equally horrid. Srinath bowled well in patches, especially in the second Test, but on the whole, the pacers lacked control, discipline and, seemingly, motivation. Anil Kumble has always been all at sea overseas, and Harbhajan Singh was taken, methodically, to the cleaners, from where he will presumably emerge with the sheen of his reputation a little less glossy. He was ineffectual against the marauding South Africans, and for those in the Indian media who have been hyping him to the skies, there is one crucial lesson in this: one series does not a Murali make.
In the bitter aftertaste of this overwhelming rout, one should not blame the players; the ingredients are not responsible if the recipe is flawed. Indian cricket's problems are endemic; the on-field indiscipline, the temperamental weaknesses, the inability to grind and fight, are all ingrained in India's cricketing culture. When the icons of the sport, role-models like Tendulkar, play this way, lesser mortals see no harm in following.
This tour has been a huge step backwards. The Indian team had an opportunity to leave its failings behind and emerge as a professional unit. They embarked on this journey full of hope, but traded it in for despair with their favoured trading partner, South Africa. Redemption has never seemed so far away.
Amit Varma is interactive editor of Cricinfo