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South Africa's fight fades away in unforgiving conditions

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We only have ourselves to blame - SA team director Nkwe (1:01)

Interim director Enoch Nkwe says South Africa didn't do enough with the ball to prevent India from reaching their mammoth first innings total. (1:01)

South Africans don't just give up. They say it's in their DNA to keep fighting, that they live for moments when they are up against it and thrive when there's adversity to overcome. But when Senuran Muthusamy was shown to have overstepped when delivering the ball that Virat Kohli edged to Faf du Plessis at slip, there were signs that some errors had crept into the genetic code.

Kohli was on 208 at the time, India were 496 for 4 and the last time a wicket fell was as a distant a memory as the last time a South African seamer threatened. Everything, not just the pitch, had gone flat. South Africa lacked energy and ideas and went on to leak 105 more runs in their next 65 balls. It was them, and not India's batsmen, who seemed to be rushing towards the declaration. And for what? To face 15 overs and watch India's seamers find life in what seemed a dead surface and show what attacking intent can do.

That killer instinct is ultimately what's been missing from South Africa so far. They've described it as bowling too wide in some instances, but they have also struggled to find a consistently good length. Though conditions do not suit the South Africans, on the odd occasion when there is something on offer, such as on the first morning of the Pune Test, they have wasted it. And later on in innings, they have not been able to create anything.

There's been very little sign of reverse swing, which could be the result of rain-soaked, lush outfields that are no good for scuffing up the ball, or the consequence of players being more careful about how they choose to work on the ball after the 2018 Newlands Test. There's also been very little sign of spark; none of South Africa's quicks seem to really want the ball and to be able to fire themselves up to the point where they can throw everything into a single spell and force the opposition line-up open. Put another way, none of them have been able to ignite an inner Dale Steyn, whose success on the subcontinent is unmatched, and who retired from red-ball cricket before this series.

Steyn played six Tests in India and took 26 wickets, one every 6.1 overs, and even if you don't remember exactly who or how often he prised them out, you remember him. You might think of Ahmedabad in 2008, when he got the ball to seam away from Rahul Dravid, straighten into Harbhajan Singh's front pad and blitz the tail with extra bounce. That spell was 4-2-14-4. And you will have heard of Nagpur 2010, when Steyn was starting his mastery of reverse-swing and in a spell of 3.4 overs he took 5 for 3 to put South Africa in a position to enforce the follow-on. While those performances were a long time ago, they are what Steyn's reputation was built on and though we cannot expect that after nine years and many injuries, we're only human for wondering what if he was on this tour?

South Africa cannot afford to entertain such fantasies and the question needs to be more about why none of their current crop can produce something similar. That could easily be misread as asking why Kagiso Rabada is not more like Steyn, and that isn't the question. The question is why Rabada, who is undoubtedly the leader of the attack, looks both unlikely to make something happen and is some way off his best. Without being unfair to Rabada, who claimed all three wickets on the first day, his second-day showing was unimpressive. While his first two spells were economical, his third was uninspired, to continue a worrying dip in performance for South Africa's premier paceman.

"In the last two years, Rabada has bowled more overs than any other pacer in world cricket and his dip in form now could be a result of that"

This year has been Rabada's least successful since he became a fully-fledged member of the XI. In six Tests, he has taken 23 wickets at an average of 28.17. In the two years before that, 2018 and 2017, his average hovered just above 20.

Of course, Rabada is not the only player whose form has suffered over that period and South Africa's overall results have also become less consistent, but considering the upward trajectory his career was on, it requires some investigating. Conditions are a big factor in Rabada's low returns and it may be a matter of experience before he is able to find a way to be successful in places that don't offer pace or bounce. But it's worth wondering whether Rabada's ineffectiveness on this tour is the price South Africa are paying for their management of him. In the last two years, Rabada has bowled more overs than any other pacer in world cricket and his dip in form now could be a result of that. He is only 24 years old, which makes it even more crucial that this red flag is not ignored.

Tired or not, there will also be those who want to see Rabada upskilling, something that should be the focus of the next few months. Though Ottis Gibson is no longer in charge, South Africa have brought back former bowling coach Vincent Barnes, who was at the helm when Steyn was at his peak, and the work Barnes puts in with Rabada could pay dividends in years to come.

South Africa's director of cricket, Enoch Nkwe, hopes the results will come quicker than that and reassured the media after the day's play that Rabada is putting in the hard yards.

"KG is someone that keeps working hard at his game. He always looks for certain areas that he can get better and better and it's so exciting to see that he is building up his confidence really well. You can see his body language, how hungry he is to do well for the team. The more he bowls, the more he gets into it," Nkwe said. "He has shown some glimpses of the best KG we've seen and it's just a matter of keep backing him and keep giving him the right kind of support to keep growing as a bowler and a cricketer."

The responsibility cannot fall on Rabada alone. Vernon Philander will come under scrutiny again for not being able to perform in conditions that challenge him while Anrich Nortje needs to be given time at the highest level before any definitive comments can be passed. Then there are South Africa's spinners, who were thrust into a bigger role than usual and have come up short.

While Keshav Maharaj's commitment is clear - he has bowled 127 overs in three innings - he has little to show for it. He is third on the list of most runs conceded by a South African bowler in an innings. And is part of the worst spin outfit to play in India since 2015.

It could be argued that South Africa expected too much of him, especially as he has never shown the same ability to attack as India's spinners, and in so doing, they did not play to their strengths. For now, South Africa are standing by their man, albeit the results of a shoulder scan could have the last say in how much more we see of him in this series.

"It has taken him a bit of time to adapt," Nkwe said of Maharaj. "He has shown it in periods, how threatening he can be. At times, if he'd had a bit of luck with a wicket or two, who knows how different it could have been. It's one of those things we have to accept and move on. There's been a bit of inconsistency at times, we leak runs and it's not ideal but we still strongly believe he is the man to take us forward in any conditions. We are just hoping soon luck will turn his way."

Hope and luck seem to be the only things South Africa have left. Their plans, which seem to have been reliant on spin, have not worked. Their quicks do not look up for it and their opposition appears too strong. As Nkwe said: "When you are bowling to a world-class line-up, that's what happens." But he also promised South Africa would keep fighting, and the next eight days in the series will tell us if it really is part of their DNA.