It was the 36th over of the South African run-chase, that was already going nowhere. Half the side was back in the pavilion. Khaya Zondo, the debutant, who was living up to the Hindi meaning of his first name by eating up a whole lot of deliveries without troubling the scorers too much (17 off 38 balls when the required rate was closing in on 10) was batting with Chris Morris.
In the eight overs that preceded the 36th over, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal were given a breather. They had once again taken care of business between overs 10 and 25 - accounting for three top order wickets. South Africa now needed 156 runs to get from 90 balls and the two wrist spinners had seven overs left between them.
You did not need to be an expert to predict that the match was going to end soon, but the manner in which happened summed up South Africa’s series so far:
35.2 - Wicket. Kuldeep to Morris, completely misses a conventional delivery playing the sweep, hit on the thigh as he went on his knees to slog sweep the ball out of Cape Town.
36.1 - Wicket. Chahal to Zondo, steps down the track as if it finally hit him that there was a run-chase underway, top-edged an attempted heave, and was on his way to the pavilion even before the ball started travelling back down to Manish Pandey.
37.3 - Wicket. Kuldeep to Phehlukwayo, tired of being made to look like an amateur cricketer who has no idea how to pick the wrong ‘un, he too is done in by conventional spin, the bat swinging in the direction of long on, the ball landing up near cover point.
38.4 - Wicket. Chahal to Tahir, attempted heave, top edge, taken by the fielder within the 30-yard circle. Rinse and repeat.
39.6 - Wicket. Kuldeep to Ngidi, so painful has South Africa’s troubles been that the umpire does his bit to put an end to their misery, gives the debutant out LBW even though replays showed the ball comfortably missing the stumps.
Five wickets in five overs, the moment Virat Kohli brought back his main weapons into the attack.
Rat, meet trap.
It was reminiscent of those scenes in Indian movies where a local gangster scares the living daylight out of naive commonfolk, who instinctively hand over the money they have without a moment’s hesitation when the gangster extends his hand, without having to say a word.
This was, for the third match running, submission to wrist spin. At the end of three matches, Kuldeep and Chahal’s combined tally of wickets stands at a whopping 21 out of a possible 30.
“Very poor, very disappointing,” was Kepler Wessels’ verdict during the post-match analysis. “The batsmen look completely out of their depth and that’s disappointing. And the worrying thing is, they are getting worse with every match rather than getting better.”
Why has this been happening? The obvious explanation is that the South African batting lineup is depleted by injuries to Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers and to a much lesser extent, Quinton de Kock. But injuries are part and parcel of the game and a lineup consisting of Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, David Miller and Aiden Markram, should really be doing better. This is, after all, the best ODI side in the world right now.
Is it the lack of time between matches that the batting coach alluded to, when he joked (we hope) that the quickest fix to this problem is to let Kuldeep and Chahal bowl to the South Africa batsmen in the nets? Possibly. Two days between matches is hardly enough time out to iron out flaws in your technique. They tried facing as many as five wrist spinners in the nets between the second and third games, and yet, their performance at Newlands was arguably the worst of the series so far - given that the pitch was not nearly as helpful for the spinners as the first two were.
It doesn’t help that wrist spin has been South Africa’s Achilles heel for a while now.
Shaun Pollock had a more alarming take on the situation - one that South Africa would do well to delve deeper into.
“The second tier of talent has been badly affected,” he explained. “Every time there is an injury these days, invariably a debutant is having to come in and stake claim to that spot. In the last 18 months, we have had 11 debutantes. Beyond the first team, the talent cupboard is a little bare.”
On current evidence, ‘crisis of confidence’ seems to be the most logical explanation. Cricket, as the cliche goes, is as much a mental game as it is physical and the South African batsmen are seemingly getting bowled over by India’s wrist spinners in their heads even before they take guard. Not to take anything away from India’s latest spin twins, but even they could be excused for expecting a tougher resistance.
JP Duminy, the only man to show any hint of an improvement at Newlands with a half century, tried explaining that the difficulty to pick wrong ‘uns was the main cause for this slump and that their strengths have been negated by the lengths the Indian duo have bowled in the series so far.
“The only standout performance was Faf’s in the first game,” Duminy said. “As a batting unit we’ve got to make sure we are better. We’ve got take it on the chin and take responsibility and know we are better than that. Throughout this series so far, we’ve lost wickets in clusters so we haven’t given ourselves a chance. It comes down to execution. We’ve got plans of how to counter their spin but we haven’t managed to execute.”
When India were dominating opponents at home in the latter half of 2017, there was a sense that ODIs in South Africa will be a better cricketing spectacle. The many thrashings of Sri Lanka had to be too much to take even for the downright, hardcore Indian fan because no one likes to see such lopsided contests. Surely South Africa would offer a stiffer challenge than Sri Lanka, we told ourselves, in hope.
And unfortunately, as a cricketing spectacle, the ODI series so far has been more of the same. When one side is so hopelessly struggling against another in a series that was expected to be closely fought, cricket, unfortunately, is all the more worse for it.