In the year 2021, the Indian men’s cricket team played a total of six One-Day Internationals. Three of them were with a full strength squad against England at home in March, and then there were three against Sri Lanka in July with a second string side.

It wasn’t as if there was less cricket played last year. God forbid that to ever happen. With the IPL, T20 World Cup and Test series at home and away, it was another busy year for the players. But the 50-over format was hardly a priority.

And the effects of playing just six ODIs, three for many, over 10 months were there for all to see in the just-concluded matches in South Africa. Temba Bavuma and Co won the first ODI by 31 runs and the second by seven wickets to seal the series with a game to spare.

The visitors were outplayed in every department and despite many billing India as the favourites on paper, the contests in the middle provided a clear indication of which direction the two teams are headed in. While South Africa, full of determination, seem to have laid a strong foundation to build on, the Indian setup is in disarray.

On the face of it, the results in the two matches suggest that India were severely let down by their bowling department. Although that is true – India bowled 98.1 overs and picked just seven wickets across the two games – there’s a lot more that went wrong for KL Rahul’s team.

In terms of batting, well, there weren’t enough runs. The first ODI saw Shardul Thakur score a late fifty to soften the blow of defeat. And in the second game too, it was a 48-run stand between Thakur and Ashwin Ravichandran that took the team to a respectable total.

The conditions for batting were indeed challenging, but one could argue that the slow nature of the pitch was more suited for India and yet, they ended up losing twice as many wickets compared to South Africa in the two games.

The likes of Bavuma, Janneman Malan and Rassie van der Dussen showed great intent by grinding it out in the middle overs. And for India, barring an 85 by Rishabh Pant on Friday, there was a sense of recklessness in the middle order. There were soft dismissals, uncharacteristic strokes, and an unwillingness to fight.

This lack of purpose was all the more evident in the bowling. Jasprit Bumrah did his reputation no harm but apart than him, there was nothing to write home about.

Bavuma and van der Dussen’s marathon partnership in the first ODI had deflated India. But what was more disappointing was how early the team seemed to have given up in the second game. By any standard, a total of 287 is a decent one to defend, but all it took was a blazing start by Quinton de Kock to kill the contest. The Indian players’ shoulders dropped and as was the case in the first game, they only seemed to be going through the motions thereafter.

This brings us to the final point, which is the most significant one. Playing false shots and bowling the wrong lines and lengths is one thing, but there shouldn’t be any scope for lack of intent.

In both games, the Indian team looked flat on the field. As the bowlers kept going for runs through the middle overs, there was no sense of urgency among the fielders. Barring Pant, one couldn’t really hear any cheering. The bowling wasn’t inspiring but neither was the body language. And the onus, of course, was on the skipper to ensure this didn’t happen.

It would be unfair to solely blame the lack of matches for India’s downfall. After all, they are going through a major transition. Kohli, who led for so long, is just another player in the team. Rohit Sharma, who is the new full-time captain, is still recovering from injury. And Rahul Dravid has taken over as head coach after a lengthy stint by Ravi Shastri.

There is indeed a lot that is new. However, this shouldn’t conceal the fact that India have only themselves to blame for losing an important away series.

Should Rahul, who found success in the middle order in the past few years, have opened the innings? Should Venkatesh Iyer, who made a name for himself by scoring runs at the top of the order, be used as a finisher? Should Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who hasn’t inspired any confidence over the past year, have been in the XI or even the squad? Should Ruturaj Gaikwad and Suryakumar Yadav, two of the most prolific Indian run-scorers in white-ball cricket over the past two years, have been given opportunities?

It was Pant who came for the post-match press conference on Friday and just like many of his teammates, he too stated that the goal is to build a team that peaks at the 2023 ODI World Cup. Going by the performances so far in 2022, perhaps the think tank should start by focussing on finding the right template.

Rohit and Dravid have time on their hands but there’s quite a bit to do. There are options for the opening slots but the middle order, as was the case in the previous World Cup cycle, seems entirely unsettled. An attacking pace bowling option is needed alongside Bumrah and as far as the spin department is concerned, it is perhaps the weakest of them all.

With the World Cup in mind, it is probably a good time to hit the reset button. But will India be brave enough to do it?