Unfamiliarity, inexperience, quality of the bowlers, questions over their own approach and the spinner-friendly surface were all to blame for South Africa scraping together their lowest total since readmission and the lowest any team has scored in a Test against India, according to Russell Domingo. The coach covered all the bases in a thorough analysis for South Africa's struggles and was careful not to identify any one of those factors as more important than the others, even as he was being led to pointing at the pitch as the main culprit of the collapse.
"If you are winning the series, it's easy to criticise the pitch. If you are behind in the series, it's difficult to criticise the pitch," Domingo said. "You've got to give India credit. They have prepared wickets that suit their style of play and the spinners have been really good. They've bowled outstandingly well and they've got to take some credit for it. We're not going to criticise the pitch right now."
That may indicate South Africa are reserving their right to do so later but by then, it may not matter as much. In the next day or two, either South Africa would have pulled off the unlikeliest of victories or had their nine-year unbeaten run in Test series on the road ended and will have more introspective issues to address, starting with whether they have regressed in their ability to play spin.
For now, Domingo is defending against that by explaining how a team that won a series against a Rangana Herath led-Sri Lankan attack 14 months ago are playing as though this is their first sight of the subcontinent. "We've got a few less experienced players in our line-up at the moment. In the last few series, we had Alviro Petersen, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis. Three of our top six or seven haven't played a Test in India before. The wickets here are totally different to the wickets we faced in Sri Lanka," he said.
Of those name mention by Domingo, only Petersen was on the Sri Lanka tour and his contributions were minimal. A more significant comparison is when South Africa last visited India, five years ago in 2010, and drew the two-Test series 1-1 when all three were in the XI: Kallis scored 173 in Nagpur and Petersen made a century on debut in Kolkata.
South Africa have three batting survivors from that trip, Hashim Amla, who made 490 runs in the series including an unbeaten 253 in Nagpur,AB de Villiers and JP Duminy and they are failing to fire together. Amla can't find a spark at all, de Villiers managed to in the first two Tests; Duminy flickered in this one. Collectively, the pressure of leading the line-up seems to be weighing on them, especially as their only other senior team-mate, Faf du Plessis, has had huge struggles against spin with 11 runs now in four innings.
As a result, all the batsmen are anxious to get runs before getting a good ball but Domingo is convinced that is the correct approach. "If you just sit there and look to absorb and not look to score, you are going to get a ball that's going to get you out. So the plan was not to play loosely, but to look to score," he said. And South Africa have not been able to score against spinners that are superior to their own.
"The Indian spinners have landed the ball more consistently than our spinners have landed the ball and have asked questions for longer periods of time," Domingo said. "We've landed the ball in good areas for two or three overs, they've landed it in good areas for eight or nine overs and that's been the difference. We've beaten the bat twice and then we've given away a soft single away. They haven't done that."
Under that sort of pressure, Domingo has promised South Africa will stick to the same strategy in their bid to square the series "We're going to look to score again tomorrow because we're not going to block out three days, that's for sure," Domingo said.
To that end, South Africa saved their best batsmen, and even those they regard as being able to make smaller contributions like Simon Harmer for later. Imran Tahir was used as a nightwatchman for the second time in two evenings with the same result as he failed to see out the day.
"We felt with Dale not being here, Imran Tahir has done reasonably well with the bat in the past - he has got the ability to hang around - and we feel Simon Harmer is too valuable to send in as a nightwatchman because we feel he can still get runs tomorrow," Domingo said. "So if somebody is going to be sacrificed, I suppose, because if Immi is batting tomorrow we are in big trouble, Immi is not a bad option to have."
Tahir was sacrificed in the field as well, where he was held back until the 25th over on a surface on which he could have opened the bowling, highlighting South Africa's inflexibility. But again, Domingo did not agree with the prevailing view that Tahir had been under-utilised.
"The captain felt that Simon was bowling really well, particularly to the left-hander [Shikhar Dhawan] and he looked like he could get the left-hander out at any stage. The ball was beating the bat. Then he brought JP on because he thought with the ball spinning away, JP could do some damage. Imran has bowed really well this game and this whole series but we know that at times he has got the tendency to leak runs, particularly when there are two batters set and the captain probably felt that at that stage, he would probably go with the bowler who would have more control."
In hindsight was it a mistake? "Hindsight would probably also have called tails at the toss," Domingo answered, perhaps cryptically revealing what he thought was most to blame for the situation South Africa find themselves in.