Considering India's dismal record in one-day games against South Africa in that country, a win and a defeat against them after two matches in the current competition would seem to be a minor triumph. In 1992-93, India lost the seven-game one-day series by five matches to two. In the Standard Bank triangular series five seasons ago, the Indians were beaten by South Africa in all three group matches and then went down to the hosts in the final. Wednesday's result was thus the first Indian victory over South Africa in that country since December 19, 1992, when they had the consolation prize of winning the last match of that series in East London.
It must be stated that, despite Wednesday's result, consistency does not seem to be the hallmark of this Indian team. Unable to defend a total of 279 then and defending a total of 233 now, one wonders what lies next. Up in the clouds one day and then down in the dumps just as quickly, this Indian side excites and exasperates.
If there is one immediate lesson that is brought home by the verdict at Centurion, it is that India has to play to its strengths. Even in one dayers, though it may not be as pronounced as it is in Tests, the strength of the Indian attack lies in its spin bowling. And now that the country has two worldclass spinners in Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble, it would be better to play both, along with two seamers, and leave the remaining 10 overs to the likes of Tendulkar, Sehwag, Ganguly and Yuvraj. Come to think of it, Sehwag did not do too badly, but why was Yuvraj not given the ball, one wonders.
It was the combination of Harbhajan and Kumble that had the South African batsmen all tied up in knots on Wednesday. However gallant the Indian seam bowlers may be, Srinath, Prasad and Agarkar have their limitations. In any case, the South Africans clearly have few problems playing them. But as was proved in the second game, they can be shackled while trying to negotiate good spin bowling. Granted the wicket had something in it and was not as flat as the Wanderers stadium pitch was during the first game last week. But on any surface, India must play both their front-line spinners to stand a chance.
That said, it must also be stated that, despite Wednesday's result, consistency does not seem to be the hallmark of this Indian team. Unable to defend a total of 279 then and defending a total of 233 now, one wonders what lies next. Up in the clouds one day and then down in the dumps just as quickly, this Indian side excites and exasperates. The excitement level was high during the time they batted in the first game, and Ganguly and Tendulkar dished out some sterling stuff. The exasperating part came only in the second half of the game, thanks to wayward bowling. But the batsmen too have to cop part of the blame, for, after the kind of dream start given by the openers, a total of 300 should have been notched up. Unfortunately, the middle order botched it up.
I was never happy with Shiv Sundar Das' selection. I argued that he is the one specialist Test opener we have and his precious gifts should be preserved for the longer game. His superb technique is bound to suffer thanks to the exposure to slam-bang cricket. Moreover, the team management just does not know where to fit him in. In the first match he went in at No 7, but in the second he was sent in at No 3. It is this kind of yo-yo treatment that has, over the years, nipped the career of many budding batsmen. Reetinder Singh Sodhi, a player of considerable promise, could be played instead; that would also give Ganguly an additional bowling option.
Overall, however, the Indians can look back with some satisfaction at their performance in the tournament so far. But even with Kenya just there to make up the numbers though one must guard against overconfidence there is still plenty of work to be done. Consistency is the key word. The team now has three batsmen who have exceeded 5000 runs in one-day internationals, two bowlers who have crossed the 200- wicket mark, and exciting young talent in Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Sodhi and Sehwag. Agarkar has always been an exemplary one-day cricketer, whatever his lamentable record in Tests, and Deep Dasgupta seems to be shaping well. The nucleus of a really fine side is very much there perhaps even one good enough to take the title. Now if only the players perform up to potential.