When things go wrong for India, it is often a team effort. This time, the process began well before the match itself, when the selectors, led by grouchy Uncle Borde, picked a grossly imbalanced team for Sourav Ganguly to lead, putting him on the back foot well before he faced his first short ball. He wanted one wicketkeeper, they gave him two, thus taking away a batting slot where a reserve opener would have fit in. They gifted him five pacemen, which meant no spin back-up for Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble - though it was good for tourism. It also left Sarandeep Singh, the third-best spinner in the country, free to provide match practice to the visiting Englishmen.
Murphy's Law continued to be Ganguly's luck when the only warm-up match prior to the first Test, at Chatsworth, was cancelled due to a damp pitch - even though it didn't rain. Connor Williams, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan, who had just joined the team from India, got no match practice and Ganguly and John Wright decided not to risk an untried Williams. So Rahul Dravid, who has the game but not the inclination, was pushed up the order to open with SS Das.
Then, on the eve of the Test, Harbhajan, the bowler the South Africans fear the most, pulled out with a mysterious groin infection. This meant Zaheer and Nehra would both play, while Ganguly's hopes of leading a fully-fit team for the first time in his captaincy went for a toss.
Ah, the toss! If there's one area in which Ganguly has achieved consistency, it's in losing the toss. Shaun Pollock won and, mooing at the sight of grass on the pitch, asked the Indians to bat first. The motifs that defined the match were visible right from the first session of play: relentless line-and-length bowling from Pollock; a typically irresponsible Indian collapse; and some beautiful batting, manifest in the outstanding partnership between Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag.
Pollock showed himself to be the real McGrath, bowling relentlessly in the corridor, moving it both ways, pitching right on the imaginary coin he surely uses in the nets. He got Dravid early and, in a dress rehearsal for the second innings, the top order quickly collapsed to 68 for 4. This included an innings of (inevitably) short-lived beauty by VVS Laxman, a cameo of 32 that served as a starter for a meal that never came.
It was left to Sachin Tendulkar to serve up the gourmet spread - a brilliantly improvised 155. He was ungainly at times, but utterly safe and brutally effective. On display was the newest addition to his customised repertoire, the slash over slips to the short ball outside off. The only man who seemed likely to get him out was himself, and he duly obliged by mistiming a pull and holing out to deep midwicket, with 155 runs to his name. A fantastic innings but alas, once again, not a match-winning one.
Virender Sehwag was a revelation. A destroyer of weak attacks in domestic cricket, he chose to play second fiddle to Tendulkar so that Rome wouldn't burn. The pair added 220 runs in 315 deliveries, as Sehwag demonstrated that he wasn't just a slam-bang, one-day strokeplayer, but that he had the technique and the temperament for Test cricket. More importantly, he also seemed to have the heart and the hunger.
We shouldn't be surprised if we find soon that Ganguly's pate has some of the sheen of Jaywant Lele's. Any captain would tear out handfuls of hair in frustration if his bowlers bowled as badly as Ganguly's did. Srinath, the master of the short, wide ball, displayed his full repertoire of loose deliveries, while Nehra's and Zaheer's obvious lack of match practice saw them match him closely. Kumble was parsimonious, but never looked lethal. Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten, the destroyer and the accumulator, destroyed and accumulated their way to an opening partnership of 189.
Ganguly's misery may have been punctuated briefly by surprised delight when Srinath produced an exceptional spell with the second new ball, cutting through the middle order. But his joy was short-lived and he soon found himself running around chasing cherry. Lance Klusener, who would surely have been Attila's right-hand man had he been born in the Middle Ages, was a left-handed nightmare for the Indians. He belted leather like a drunk in a tannery, and slogged his way to 108 runs, with 18 fours and a six. He flashed outside the off stump often enough to be granted entry into a nudist club, but the Indian bowlers didn't make their own luck. South Africa ended on 563, with a healthy lead of 184.
Staring down the barrel, India then pressed the trigger. The team committed mass hara-kiri on the fourth morning as all the top-order players threw it away with indiscreet shots - except Ganguly who proved unable, yet again, to defend against the short ball. Left with 54 to win, South Africa wrapped it up in 15 overs, with 9 wickets to spare.
Look ma, no tail
Ganguly begs it to wag, but it doesn't even budge. In India's completed innings in their last 10 Tests, the last five wickets have fallen for an average of 59 runs. (In this Test, they fell for 28 and 42 runs respectively.) The last five who played in this match average 72.46 cumulatively between them. They nevertheless managed to underperform at Bloemfontein, their lack of ability exacerbated by a lack of application.
The discomfort zone
Dravid looked uncomfortable batting at the top of the order. Ganguly looked uncomfortable batting. `The Wall' looked brittle against the new ball, which he has faced so often at No. 3, where he averages 56.36. `The Prince of Calcutta' looked plebian against the short ball.
Pollock is often glossed over because he bowls alongside Allan Donald and is an all-rounder in a team that has many. Now, consider this: his batting average in 10 Tests in 2001, including this one, is 64.85. And his career bowling average now stands at an outstanding 20.31, the highest in the history of the game among bowlers with over 200 wickets. He provided the matchstick with which the Indians immolated themselves, and the yardstick by which all pace bowlers must be measured today. He is on par with McGrath as the best pace bowler in the world today; and he can bat.
Amit Varma is interactive editor of Cricinfo