Nishi Narayanan is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo
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A series that began with India supposedly on a hiding to nothing ended on the final day at Newlands with the team wondering how they let a coveted away win escape like sand through cupped fingers. On a pitch that Graeme Smith wished that he'd never see again in the southern cape, India dominated for three days before freezing in sight of the finish line. The batting on the fourth afternoon will forever be a black mark in the annals of the Indian game, and the shabby display in the field on the final day obliterated pleasant memories of four golden days at the Wanderers.
When it came to the crunch, Indian cricket's legends failed it, even as South Africa's key performers carried their team home. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid set the negative tone while batting in slow motion, and the lethargy spread to Anil Kumble, who went wicketless on a fifth-day surface against batsmen not renowned for their ability to combat the turning ball.
The rot had set in at Kingsmead, on a second morning when South Africa's last two wickets added 73 to take the gloss off another strong bowling performance. As at the Wanderers, Sreesanth had led the way, with beautiful use of the seam while swinging the ball at lively pace. With the momentum having shifted, South Africa pressed home their advantage, with Makhaya Ntini's magnificent final-day bowling bringing about a result that hadn't appeared possible as bad light cast a pall over the whole match.
Even without the injured Jacques Kallis, South Africa's batsmen had rebounded after the Johannesburg humiliation, with Ashwell Prince and Graeme Smith at the forefront of the revival. Smith's second-innings 58 turned out to be pivotal in more ways than one, heralding as it did a return to form after a woeful start to the season. At Newlands, in front of his adopted home crowd, he was once more the intimidating leader, muscling strokes in every direction on his way to two priceless half-centuries.
India's answer was a whimper. A year ago, Virender Sehwag was the most feared opener in the game. But after a series where his highest score, 40, came from the middle order, he might just be yesterday's news, with his form, fitness and attitude all under a cloud. Time away from the limelight has revived the careers of men like Sourav Ganguly and Michael Clarke, and an enforced sabbatical is perhaps Sehwag's best hope of coming back as the player we all know he can be.
If anything, this series only reinforced just how crucial Dravid is to India's Test plans. For the first time since the home series against South Africa in 1999-2000, he finished without a half-century, and it was Ganguly that finished top of the Indian run chart with 214 runs. To be fair to Dravid, he got two poor decisions in Durban, and the officiating on the whole made a mockery of the Elite Panel concept.
While the batting side of things was an unmitigated disaster, things couldn't have been more different with the ball. Sreesanth will wonder how he took more wickets than Ntini and Shaun Pollock (18 at 21.94) and yet finished on the losing side, while Zaheer Khan was the perfect foil on his return from the wilderness. Kumble disappointed at Newlands, but was as committed as ever while wheeling away for more overs (134) than any bowler on either side.
Where India lost out was in the fourth-bowler stakes. VRV Singh's inexperience showed in the first two Tests, while Munaf Patel's shocking lack of fitness in the series decider made a mockery of his selection. Playing him on the back of hardly any match practice was always going to be a gamble, and it failed signally. It didn't help either than Irfan Pathan was already back home, trying to resuscitate a career that has gone into freefall since the tour of the West Indies.
But in the midst of the all-pervasive gloom at Newlands, India rediscovered a talent that hadn't yet come to fruition when first exposed to international cricket. Dinesh Karthik was an eleventh-hour replacement for the injured Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and the character he showed when pushed up to open the batting in the first innings augured well for the future. He was tidy behind the stumps as well, and his constant chirping tried to coax some energy out of a group where too many individuals sleepwalked their way through one of the biggest games of their lives.
The Wanderers win had been an emphatic response after the utter mediocrity of the one-day series. But instead of building on it, India blinked when confronted by the key moments that decide the fate of a series. Nothing worthwhile was ever achieved through timidity and a conservative approach, and the harsh lessons learnt at Durban and Cape Town will have to be taken on board before India embark on the ultimate tests - tours of England and Australia. And it would certainly help if the fielding didn't resemble a bunch of geriatrics having a Sunday hit.