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Karthik's form, Iyer's lack of form, Bhuvneshwar's class among India's takeaways

One back-up opener outperformed the other, meanwhile, and Hardik Pandya continued his encouraging return to being a full allrounder

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
In a series where they bounced back from 2-0 down to draw level at 2-2 before rain won the final T20I, India were probably not primarily concerned about the results. With the T20 World Cup in Australia roughly four months away, the main goal was to firm up their plans for the global event. Keeping that in mind, here are their takeaways from the South Africa series.
Karthik replicates his success at international level
After a scintillating IPL season, Dinesh Karthik was picked for India in a niche role, one that head coach Rahul Dravid described as an "enforcer" in the last five overs. The question was if he could repeat at the international stage what he did in the IPL. India tried him strictly in the role he was selected for. In the second T20I in Cuttack, they even sent Axar Patel ahead of Karthik at No. 6 in the 13th over to ensure just that. Karthik didn't disappoint and struck an unbeaten 30 off 21 despite a slow start on a difficult pitch.
His best came in the fourth T20I in Rajkot, where he scored 55 off 27 balls to haul India to a winning total. His overall strike rate was 158.62, second only to David Miller's 165.51 among all batters in the series. There is still some time left for the World Cup, but Karthik doing well has meant Rishabh Pant is now slightly less assured of his spot in the XI, though he has Dravid's backing.
Back-up opener: Kishan ahead of Gaikwad
With KL Rahul ruled out on the eve of the first T20I and Rohit Sharma rested, both Ishan Kishan and Ruturaj Gaikwad opened throughout the series. The directive was to play an attacking brand of cricket, so both tried to take on the bowlers. Kishan was brutal against spin, scoring 91 runs off 39 balls, but against pace, he could manage only 115 off 98. In all, he scored 206 runs - easily the most in the series - at a strike rate of 150.36.
Gaikwad is supposed to be better against fast bowling, and it reflected in his series strike rates too - 133.33 against pace compared to 120.00 against spin. But when the ball moved around, he didn't always look convincing, and was late on his shots a few times as well. His overall tally of 96 runs - of which 57 came in one innings - ensures Kishan should be well clear of him in the race for the back-up opener's role.
Bhuvneshwar shows his new-ball class
With Jasprit Bumrah rested, Bhuvneshwar Kumar led India's pace attack and put in a Player-of-the-Series-worthy performance. He once again showed his skills with the new ball, moving it both ways to keep the South Africa batters in check. After the first match, in which he went for 43 from his four overs, he conceded less than six an over in each of the other games. He finished with six wickets, the joint second-most in the series, and had an overall economy rate of 6.07, the lowest in the series for anyone who bowled more than five overs.
"Bhuvi was special in this whole series," South Africa coach Mark Boucher said after the final T20I, "and he put us under pressure in the powerplay." With India looking to shortlist a pool of 18 to 20 players for the T20 World Cup, Bhuvneshwar has strengthened his position as one of the four main fast-bowling options alongside Bumrah, Harshal Patel and Mohammed Shami.
Iyer fails to grab his chances
Despite many other batters also vying for that one vacant middle-order spot, Shreyas Iyer was in the XI for all five games. However, he ended up with a return of a mere 94 runs at a strike rate of 123.68.
In Cuttack, he found himself stuck on a difficult track and laboured for 35 balls for 40 runs. The South Africa seamers also exploited his weakness against short-of-good-length deliveries to keep him quiet, which doesn't bode well with the fact that the World Cup will be played in Australia where the pitches are expected to be fast and bouncy. With Suryakumar Yadav returning for the Ireland series and Karthik occupying one batting slot, things are not looking rosy for Iyer.
Hardik, the allrounder
Hardik Pandya was the cynosure in Gujarat Titans' IPL-winning run last month. While he didn't grab many headlines during the South Africa series, he was solid with the bat. Returning to the finisher's role after batting exclusively at Nos. 3 and 4 for Titans, Hardik crossed 30 in three out of four innings and struck at 153.94 during the series. With the ball, he had an economy rate of 12.20 but India would be happy that he sent down five overs in three innings without any discomfort.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo