For the third match in a row India's batsmen caved in under the floodlights against a relentless pace attack, surrendering to a 80-run defeat in the fourth ODI at Port Elizabeth. Herschelle Gibbs's controlled 93 set up South Africa's thumping win before the pace attack sealed the deal, giving them an unassailable 3-0 lead in the series with one match to play.
India's was a much-improved performance on the field - a fine start with the new ball was complemented by disciplined spin bowling in the middle, their fielding was sharper, and their bowlers finally got it right at the death. But, just when they appeared to be turning a corner, a rash of poor shot selection ended their chances. Irfan Pathan's battling 47 was the only bright spot as India slumped to their 11th defeat in their last 15 games (two games didn't have results).
Having sustained their intensity for the entire first half, unlike at Cape Town when they allowed South Africa to break away, India had a chance to pull one back. But a combination of Makhaya Ntini's blistering pace and Shaun Pollock's nagging accuracy left India with nowhere to hide. Some reckless shot-making didn't help matters and none of the top-order batsmen showed the gumption to hang in there and bide his time.
The slide began in the sixth over of the innings when Jaffer flashed away from his body - not a stroke he would even imagine attempting in the Test matches. Sachin Tendulkar, batting at No.3 for only the eighth time in his career, was unsure about whether to play or leave and fell to Pollock for the ninth time (Chaminda Vaas is the only other bowler to have managed it so many times). The two dismissals seemed to rattle Sehwag, who soon scooped a full ball to midwicket and watching Loots Bosman pull off a superb diving catch. Mohammad Kaif and Dinesh Karthik found runs difficult to come by and succumbed to a silly run-out. Karthik set off but stopped after a few steps and there was little Kaif could do but carry on running back to the pavilion.
The support cast refused to let up on the aggression that Ntini and Pollock had displayed. Andre Nel, who missed the previous game, generated lift and hit the splice hard while Jacques Kallis troubled the batsmen with movement off the pitch. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's brief blast, including four spanked fours and a pulled six off Kallis, ended in an over-ambitious swing while Dinesh Karthik and Ajit Agarkar gave it away after they were set. Pathan, however, stood out. He managed to score at close to a run a ball and showed that he could attack as well as defend with his solid technique. He even managed to blitz the fiery Nel for two huge sixes - one drilled over long-off, the other lofted over cover.
India will do well to pick up a few lessons from Gibbs, who shelved his attacking instincts in the face of disciplined bowling. His innings could have been terminated on 2, when he pulled a short one straight to Sehwag at midwicket, but Sreesanth overstepping the mark allowed him to fight on. He waited for the loose deliveries, while effectively collecting singles against the spinners, and acted as a glue to ensure that the innings didn't fall apart.
He shared three vital partnerships - 69 with Kallis, whose aesthetically-conceived 49 was gorgeous in its execution, 61 with Mark Boucher, who nudged his way to 29, and 61 with Shaun Pollock, who's promising 37 was cut short by a needless run-out. Kallis's knock was the most aggressive of the lot, leading a superb counterattack from a precarious 7 for 2, after Zaheer Khan had removed Smith for the third successive game in a row.
Things South Africa couldn't manage a boundary between the 29th and 39th overs - a phase during which Tendulkar and Sehwag applied the brakes. Pollock's busy approach, including two crisply-struck sixes, allowed him to motor to a 43-ball 37 but a reckless bit of running from Gibbs - when he was concentrating on the ball driven to mid-on rather than Pollock running three quarters of the distance - cost him his wicket. Zaheer and Sreesanth cashed in on that moment. Managing full-length deliveries on a consistent basis, the duo conceded just 28 in the final four overs, providing a suitable denouement to the good work from the rest. India's batsmen, though, undid it all.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo