AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis had added 68 at close to run a ball when the former drove Ravindra Jadeja wide of sweeper cover. Mohit Sharma sprinted towards the ball, picked it up, and staggered back a few steps from the effort of his throw. Even though Mohit lost his balance, it did not affect the accuracy of the throw, and MS Dhoni found de Villiers short on the second run. Both captains later said that run-out was where the game turned towards India.
An Indian fast bowler producing a crucial run-out from the deep. Does not happen often. It happened again in the same game, barely ten overs later. This time it was Umesh Yadav's rapid arm from deep square leg that sent back the dangerous David Miller, despite a slide from the batsman.
India outfielded South Africa on a ground as massive as the MCG. Has probably never happened before. Their prowling inner ring carried a greater threat throughout, keeping batsmen wary of attempting quick singles. There were far fewer fumbles and overthrows. The catching was safe. Their deep fielders covered hundreds of metres, saving boundaries and cutting threes to twos, in addition to those two big run-outs. Here again, an instance from a fast bowler stood out.
Mohammed Shami had just finished an over and gone to long leg when he had to put in a long run to his left first ball of the next over. He reached there just in time, and stopped the ball with his boot before his momentum took him over the rope. Ajinkya Rahane had chased the ball from the inner circle and was around to pick it up and throw it back. The joint effort saved a run. Shami was breathless from the run, but gathered himself quickly and trotted eagerly back to his position.
The fast bowlers are apt examples to highlight India's fielding display in this World Cup so far because they show just how far the side has come from the previous edition. In 2011, India had Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel and Ashish Nehra. Those were not the only ones who had to be hidden on the field. Senior batsmen such as Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag were not exactly sharp. Not many in that squad had a strong arm from the deep. Imagine defending a total, any total, with that unit at the MCG.
MS Dhoni will not react much to a dropped catch but a slow reaction from a fielder will have him banging his gloves together in frustration. He hates conceding even one extra run on the field. Years after the juggling act of hiding multiple poor fielders and making do with the kind of attacks India have had, this unit has given Dhoni some breathing space. The captain was grateful for that.
"What we know is that we can add minimum 10 to 15 runs to whatever we score with the kind of fielders that we have got," Dhoni said. "There may be one fielder or two slightly slower than the others, but by no means we are bad fielders. I think we have got some excellent fielders, and apart from that we have got fast bowlers who are above average fielders.
"Overall I've got plenty to play with. I don't always have to think about which player needs to go where. I have time to think more about the strategies rather than trying to use four or five good fielders and seeing what's really needed, whether I need to stop the singles or I need boundary riders who can stop the twos and the threes. That actually eases the pressure off me."
Dhoni said that India's fielding standards could only get better in the future, with an increased focus on fitness levels. "It's something that you will see in the coming years with more players, the fresh players coming in with the infrastructure that's provided to them and the importance that's given to fitness, you will see more often than not the new crop of players, they'll be really good in fitness, which will reflect in the fielding department."
Rahane is probably the best example of a high level of fitness translating into a quality fielder. He is possibly India's quickest when it comes to chasing down balls from the inner ring. Against South Africa, Rahane sprawled to his weaker left side at cover to stop a potential boundary from Hashim Amla. The surprised batsman was so far down the pitch that even the backing-up Suresh Raina could have run him out had he hit.
"You see him on the field, he's very quick, and his intensity actually never drops right from the first over until the 90th over if you see a Test match," Dhoni said of Rahane. "To me that's what fitness is all about."
As India go deeper into the World Cup, that fitness will be tested further on the field. But they know that they have a unit capable of repeating their fielding performance so far in the tournament, that it was not a one-off. They may not be the absolute naturals like the Australian and New Zealand fielders, but they are still a threat to opposition batsmen.