Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Jasprit Bumrah is a world-class bowler - both in Test cricket and in the limited-overs versions. But in the last couple of years, he has lacked the potency with the new ball in ODIs. Since the 2019 World Cup, he has picked up just one powerplay wicket in 43 overs across 11 innings.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar hasn't fared much better: in the same period, he has three powerplay wickets from 41 overs.
That has resulted in India being by far the worst bowling side in the first ten overs. Since the last World Cup, their bowlers have picked up only ten powerplay wickets in 23 ODIs. They have also given away 5.74 runs an over - the most by any team - and their bowling average of 132.10 is more than double that of the next worst (Zimbabwe's 63.45). In comparison, India's opponents in those games picked up 24 wickets in 22 innings at an average of 53.00 and an economy rate of 5.78.
Stand-in captain KL Rahul was asked before the South Africa series if that concern was addressed in team meetings. "We have talked about this and we have some ideas, some plans, and we want to try those in the coming series," he said. "That will give us an indication about whether we're doing things right, and if our strategies or tactics are right."
Clearly, whatever India tried didn't work as their new-ball woes haunted them again during the second ODI in Paarl. Chasing 288, South Africa cruised to 66 for no loss in the first ten overs. On a surface that was supposed to make batting difficult in the second innings, they registered their highest successful chase since 2017.
Apart from the sub-par returns with the new ball, what has hurt India in this series is the lack of a third wicket-taking fast bowler in the playing XI.
In the absence of Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja and Washington Sundar, they are forced to play both Venkatesh Iyer and Shardul Thakur, leaving no place for someone like Mohammed Siraj. But they are caught between a rock and a hard place. They need someone from the top six to chip in with a few overs if a regular bowler goes for too many or, worse, breaks down. And the importance of Thakur's batting was highlighted today, as without him, India would have struggled to cross 275.
But what was baffling was the Indian spinners being outbowled by their South African counterparts on a pitch that resembled one from back home. The last time India visited South Africa, in 2017-18, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal had wreaked havoc. They topped the bowling charts, picking up 33 wickets at a combined average of 15.09 to help India win the six-match ODI series 5-1.
This time, with Kuldeep out of form and favour, and Chahal not at his best, India struggled to take wickets in the middle overs too. R Ashwin, playing his first ODI series since June 2017, wasn't very effective either.
In the first ODI, Chahal and Ashwin had combined figures of 1 for 106 from 20 overs, while Keshav Maharaj, Tabraiz Shamsi and Aiden Markram had 4 for 124 from 26 overs. On Friday, the Chahal-Ashwin combo went for 1 for 115 from their 20 overs, while Maharaj, Shamsi and Markram picked up 4 for 143 from 26.
In the first match, Ashwin started by flighting the ball but soon switched to a flatter trajectory, which neither stopped runs nor fetched wickets. Chahal bowled a few good deliveries but also erred in line from time to time. The South African batters, especially Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma, cashed in on it, using sweep as their main weapon.
Today, Ashwin was introduced into the attack as soon as the fourth over after Quinton de Kock took Bhuvneshwar apart. He started in the same manner, tossing the ball up and even bowling a maiden to Janneman Malan. In his third over, he produced a stumping chance but Rishabh Pant fluffed it. To rub it in, de Kock, the man reprieved, hit the next ball for a six and went on to score 78 off 66 balls, setting the platform for a series-clinching victory.
Chahal bowled a little better, picking up 1 for 47, but it wasn't good enough.
"I think they [the South African spinners] were a little more consistent in their lines and lengths," Pant said after the match. "Yes, our spin unit could have done a little better but you have to see we are playing one-dayers after a long time, we are just getting used to the momentum of the 50-over cricket. So there are lots of factors we can talk about. Hopefully, we can correct all these mistakes in the coming matches."