Sourav Ganguly stood on the burning deck nearly four hours for a fine 87 as India's misadventure at Motera ended with ugly scars that may take a while to heal. South Africa, a class apart from first ball to last, swept to a thoroughly deserved innings-and-90-run victory inside three days and cannot lose a series that was billed as the contest for the No.2 ranking behind Australia.
Ganguly added 110 with Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and 55 with VVS Laxman, exhibiting all the determination and poise that had been conspicuously absent in India's abject first innings. But once Dale Steyn, wicketless until then, returned to tempt him into a drive from round the wicket, the match was only ever going to have one outcome. Ganguly stood his ground, and replays suggested the noise that alerted Tony Hill might have been bat striking ground, but the South Africans were convinced that there had been a big deflection.
His dismissal completely changed the course of a final session that had started encouragingly for the home side, with Ganguly playing some delicate cuts off Paul Harris and a beautiful straight push off Morne Morkel. With Dhoni in dogged and restrained mood, it was Ganguly who worked the bowlers, until the decisive moment when Graeme Smith tossed the ball Steyn's way.
Dhoni reached his half-century from 122 balls soon after, but with Smith calling on his big guns, the resistance was swiftly ended. Makhaya Ntini saw off Dhoni, pitching one perfectly in the off-stump corridor to induce the expansive drive. Smith made no mistake at slip.
Harris was swung for one huge six by Irfan Pathan, but otherwise bottled up one end and was rewarded for his effort with the wicket of Anil Kumble, bowled through the gap between bat and pad. That was enough for Smith to call for the new ball, five overs late, and Steyn soon struck, trapping Harbhajan Singh in front. The subsequent flurry of strokes from Pathan and Sreesanth did little more than delay the popping of the champagne corks.
In truth, India's fate was sealed in a morning session where they lost both Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid. With rain falling heavily the previous evening, Smith had declared on the overnight total of 494 for 7. Needing 418 just to make South Africa bat again, the Indian innings had the most bizarre start. Steyn strove for express pace, and Sehwag responded with two stunning strokes, a swivel-pull and a clip off the pads, both of which sailed over the rope for sixes.
But after surviving an excellent leg-before shout from Ntini, Sehwag's luck ran out. The second time Ntini thudded one into the pad, Hill raised the finger. Dravid, best equipped to deal with the conditions, came in and got going with a lovely flick for four off Ntini, but Wasim Jaffer was having a torrid time at the other end, squared up by Ntini and then lucky to escape after a superb short ball from Morkel had him popping one up into no-man's land.
A beautiful cover drive soon after lifted the spirits somewhat, and when Jacques Kallis replaced Ntini, Jaffer greeted him with an emphatic pull for four. The partnership was worth 33 when Morkel struck with a delivery that climbed steeply up at Dravid. He tried to drop the ball to his feet, but couldn't quite get on top of it, and the edge was neatly caught by AB de Villiers at third slip.
Jaffer followed in similar fashion, caught on the crease and squared up by a Kallis delivery that angled in, and it was left to Ganguly and Laxman to try and salvage a modicum of pride. Laxman was in splendid touch, playing some magnificent drives down the ground and tucking the ball off his pads with time to spare. Soon after lunch, though, Smith replaced Steyn with Morkel, and after Laxman had caressed two fours, the breakthrough arrived. A delivery outside off stump, a statuesque swish, and thin contact with the back of the bat on the way to Mark Boucher. Laxman's 35 had taken just 45 balls, but India needed so much more.
Every South African bowler tested Ganguly with the short ball, but he suffered his most anxious moments against the deliveries that slanted across him. A beautiful square-drive off Morkel and a crisp off-drive off Steyn saw him find his range, and Dhoni's arrival allowed the strike to tick over steadily.
Dhoni chanced his arm as he's prone to. A cut off Steyn flashed through gully and after he had whipped Harris through midwicket, he got his first stroke of luck. A short ball from Steyn, a miscued hook, and a complete bungle on the long-leg rope from Ntini, who had wandered too far in. Steyn wasn't very pleased and he showed it, and there was further cause for frowns just before tea when a rash charge at Harris saw Boucher fluff a tough stumping chance.
Ganguly swept Harris neatly for four, and reached his 50 from just 86 deliveries. It was brave stuff, but you sensed that it would ultimately be as futile as trying to paddle up the Amazon with a broken oar. After stinking up the place on the first morning, the good ship India deserved only the cold ocean floor.