About three weeks ago, India were riding the crest of a wave. They had breached a South African fortress in Centurion, were 1-0 up in the Test series, and had every prospect of turning that into a series-winning lead. However, that belonged in 2021. In 2022, India haven't won any game in South Africa. Defeats in the last two Tests have been followed up by a loss in the opening ODI, and now India find themselves within one game of returning home with defeats in both the series, a prospect that would have seemed somewhat far-fetched at any point before the tour began or even after the first Test.
The second ODI follows close on the heels of the first one, and at the same venue too - Boland Park in Paarl. The heat and the dryness of the pitch meant spinners found purchase, and the South African duo of Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi (combined figures of 20-1-94-3) comfortably out-performed India's pair of R Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal (20-0-106-1). And if you add Aiden Markram's part-time spin to the mix, South Africa's spin figures become an even more impressive 26-1-124-4.
Apart from expecting more from their spinners, India will also have to deal with the familiar issue of the middle order lacking runs. It has been the flip side to having a top three of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli - who have piled on runs relentlessly - that the middle order remains slightly uncooked, and it is not a problem with easy solutions.
For South Africa, the theme that ran through their success in the Test series held good in the first ODI too: they are a team without too many superstars but one that still gets the job done. Rassie van der Dussen has played 30 ODIs so far, and averages a whopping 73.62 in them. In the first ODI here, he showed what he could do with inventive and attacking batting. His innings swung the game decisively South Africa's way, with the run rate floundering until he took charge.
While it is unrealistic to expect him to sustain this level of run-scoring in ODIs, it is not as if these numbers are completely out of the blue for van der Dussen. In a List A career spanning 119 matches, his average is just shy of 50.
South Africa WLWLW (last five completed matches; most recent first) India LLWWW
In the spotlight
KL Rahul will face the heat as captain and opening batter. On the eve of the first ODI, he had lauded Venkatesh Iyer's all-round utility to the ODI side, but then opted not to call him up for a single over with the ball even when the others were being dealt with easily by Temba Bavuma and van der Dussen. It left the question as to why Iyer was preferred to Suryakumar Yadav or Ishan Kishan, who arguably offer more as batters alone. And while batting, Rahul opted for some caution even though South Africa opened the bowling with Markram's part-time offspin.
A favourable match-up against a non-regular bowler with the field up during the powerplay and a steep target to chase should have unlocked Rahul's free-stroking persona. Instead, he brought out the IPL image of recent vintage: the captain intent on caution. Tactically too, it wasn't the best move as it allowed South Africa to get six overs out of the fifth bowler's quota first up, and gave them much greater freedom to use their main bowlers at key moments. How Rahul responds to these as captain and batter will be interesting to see.
While Aiden Markram's bowling offered an unexpected bonus, and his fielding at point remains top notch, his main suit has been in trouble lately. He isn't short of class but the runs haven't been coming for Markram, and that is something that could trouble South Africa on another day. Hence, they could well consider a swap with a bowler. In the likes of George Linde and Dwaine Pretorius, they have bowlers who can bat.
If they want to go for a pure bowler, there is Sisanda Magala. In effect, if Markram is not contributing via runs, there is an argument to be made that his part-time bowling can be replaced by someone with greater pedigree.
South Africa are unlikely to make changes to a winning combination from the first ODI. They followed the same philosophy in the Test matches, where Maharaj played the second and third Tests despite having little to do.
South Africa (likely): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Janneman Malan, 3 Temba Bavuma (capt), 4 Aiden Markram, 5 Rassie van der Dussen, 6 David Miller, 7 Andile Phehlulwayo, 8 Marco Jansen, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Lungi Ngidi, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
Rahul had said before the series began that while India would look to be flexible tactically, they would ensure those selected got a good run. On that basis, it is not likely that they will make any changes to the side from the first ODI either.
It is set to be another hot day in Paarl. The surface is slow and aiding spin already, and the heat will dry it out further. The slowness of the pitch is balanced by the shorter boundaries. And so, like in the first ODI, the team winning the toss will look to bat in all probability.
Stats and trivia
Among the top ten pace bowlers in terms of ODI wickets since Jasprit Bumrah's debut in January 2016, only he has an economy rate below five. Bumrah has the second-most wickets in this period, but his average and economy rate are both better than Trent Boult, who has the most.
Keshav Maharaj has played six of his 16 ODIs at home - all in the last two years - and in four out of those six, he has paired with Tabraiz Shamsi. This is a pointer to the South African pitches not always being spin-unfriendly, as well as to South Africa having two quality spinners to call on.
"Our thought process is that we are building a team for the 2023 World Cup. So there are going to be a few hiccups here and there. But we all have good clarity that we have got this bunch of players and how we have to refine them. It doesn't matter if we lose an odd game while trying to do that because we are looking at the bigger picture." Shikhar Dhawan isn't too worried about India's middle-order issues.
"Definitely a lot more in favour of the Indian players, more like a subcontinent pitch rather than a South African pitch. So that's what makes the victory even sweeter, basically in foreign conditions, we outplayed them." Tabraiz Shamsi on the pitch at Boland Park, and why the win in the first ODI was significant.