Watching Sachin Tendulkar bat today was depressing. The bowling was good - Shaun Pollock was on the mark, Paul Harris was turning it from the rough. The fielding was sharp. Perhaps Tendulkar had a bad back. Perhaps his elbow was hurting. But none of this quite explained the crawl that he subjected himself to.
He looked like a man weighed down by his own doubts; a man who didn't believe he could take runs off a debutant spin bowler. He ended up making the pitch look more unplayable than it perhaps was, and plunged his team into despair. It would perhaps be harsh to put the onus of India's collapse on one man, but without doubt, it was during those 15 overs when Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid convinced themselves run-scoring was beyond their means that South Africa took a stranglehold on the match.
India started the day with the right intent by sending Virender Sehwag to open. Some might argue that Sehwag, who knows only one way to play spinners - either I dismiss them out of my sight, or they dismiss me - would have been more useful in the middle order to counter Harris, but the motive was positive. It sent a message to opposition: we are here to win.
True, India were set back by the loss of two early wickets and the confusion over whether Tendulkar could come out to bat at No 4, mustn't have been easy on the nerves, but Dravid and Ganguly had batted fluently enough to bring India to a position from where a 300-plus target for South Africa looked quite achievable. In the context of the match, the 84 they put up came at a fair clip. Ganguly, after a streaky first-ball four, had batted with composure and panache to score 47 off 89 balls before he was suckered into a jab outside the off stump by Jaques Kallis.
What followed was inexplicable. Tendulkar pottered and scratched, padded and swiveled, nudged and groped and the Indian innings came to a standstill. Harris was bowling over the wicket, and landing a lot of balls on the rough outside the leg stump, but from Tendulkar, there was simply no intent.
And he seemed to have infected Dravid with his approach, because runs dried up from the other side too. Dravid had scored 36 from 88 balls when Tendulkar came in. He made only 11 from the next 46 and hit no more fours. The fourth wicket stand produced 24 runs in 15 overs, to which Tendulkar contributed 9 in 45 balls. It was worse than tentative and diffident, it was supine and unbecoming.
An hour later Dinesh Karthik, all of 21 years old and only in his 10th Test, showed what intent and confidence, combined with skill, can achieve. He swept Harris from the rough, cut him when he shortened his length, and reverse swept him from outside the leg stump. Kallis was cut and flicked off the pads, Steyn was cover-driven and suddenly the demons seemed to have vanished from a wearing pitch. Had the tail-enders stayed with him a bit longer, he looked likely to stretch the Indian lead beyond 250.
In Tendulkar's case, it was the opposite. He arrived at the crease at a juncture when the match was on the line, and instead of imposing himself on the proceedings as you would expect of a player of such skill and stature, he let the occasion wear him down. Soon the bowlers acquired such a grip that every run felt like a struggle. Watching it was embarrassing.
India might still go on to the win the match. But if they don't we know where they let it slip.