In late December, Virat Kohli’s men embarked on a trip of the African continent to achieve what no Indian team had achieved before – win a series against South Africa in their own backyard. “Payback for 25 years” was even the official tagline the Indian broadcaster of the series decided to go with, much to the amusement (and disdain) of many fans.
Upon arrival in the Rainbow Nation, this Indian team had been touted as the most likely to come away with a historic win. As it turned out, red-ball cricket proved a challenge too far for Kohli’s men, especially in the first two Tests, but once they recorded a famous win in the third Test at the Wanderers, the momentum swung and they absolutely dominated limited-overs cricket.
In the Tests, South Africa made it count when they batted first. Their average first-innings score was 271. In comparison, India scored 234 in their first innings.
India’s bowling line-up, however, consistently delivered. Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in particular returned excellent averages and the fact that Mohammed Shami – perhaps the least impressive of the four pacers – ended up as the leading wicket taker, tells how good Kohli’s bowling lineup was.
After all, it is not every day that an Indian bowling attack takes 60 wickets in a three-match overseas tour.
All the Indian bowlers including Ashwin averaged better than they normally do outside the subcontinent.
But despite such a formidable performance by Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the first Test at Cape Town, India left out arguably their best pacer at Centurion. Virat Kohli seems to have made a habit of changing his playing combination. Since he took over, he’s never played the same playing XI in any two of the 35 Tests that he has been captain in. Something that was noticeable when India left out their best overseas batsman, Ajinkya Rahane, who was the second most consistent selection in Kohli’s side after Ashwin before this series.
Truth be told, the much talked-up batting line-up failed miserably in the first two Tests. With the exception of Kohli’s 153 at Centurion, most Indian batsmen didn’t deliver. Arguably, India’s tail was far better at dragging the team towards South Africa’s totals than the top order was.
In fact, when the batting did fire, it resulted in a win. On a torrid pitch in Johannesburg, eight of the individual scores went past 20 runs. In the previous two Tests, Indian batsmen went past 20 a total of 10 times only.
South Africa on the other hand were far superior with the bat. A slew of top-order batsmen contributed with some useful runs, but none established themselves in the series the way Kohli did for India. The biggest difference at the end of the series was, arguably, the fact that Kohli didn’t have a supporting cast like the one AB de Villiers did.
It wasn’t only the scoring that mattered, but also partnerships. Take the second Test at Centurion and third-wicket partnership between Dean Elgar and AB de Villiers. Between them, they amassed 141 runs in the second innings and arguably the partnership that made the difference in the Test. India lost wickets at regular intervals and never truly built partnerships the entire series.
If the Tests were a show of South Africa’s supremacy, India showed that on any surface they are the masters of white ball cricket.
The men in blue showed just how irresistible they are when chasing over the last few years under Kohli and MS Dhoni. Since 2005, India have been able to chase bigger scores and average 231 while chasing. Before the chasing revolution, India averaged 201 when batting second.
They’ve also managed to chase down 300-plus scores 13 times since 2005. A large chunk of these chases have been with a Kohli or Dhoni-led team as India have chased 300 or more 17 times since 1971 overall.
Kohli in particular has taken up the mantle of truly leading from the front in a chase. He averages 102 while chasing since he became captain.
(For the record, these are the updated numbers of Kohli, when batting second: 113 innings, 28 not-outs, 5772 runs, average 67.90, strike rate 94.05, 21 fifties, 27 centuries)
Some may consider it over-reliance on Kohli, but he’s established himself as a clear contender to overthrow Sachin Tendulkar’s ODI record of 49 centuries. In the 50-over format, he seems to be scoring runs for fun now. In South Africa, Kohli batted thrice chasing. Two scores were centuries and one was an unbeaten 46 in a low scoring game.
(Read more: In ODIs, Kohli’s numbers defy belief)
Kohli finished the ODI series with 558 runs – that’s more than Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Aiden Markram and David Miller combined.
Though Kohli was brilliant, India was also exceptional as a fielding side. South Africa were skittled out for their lowest total at home, not an easy task considering historically how dominant they’ve been in their backyard. The protagonists in that match in Centurion, as they were throughout the series, were the wrist-spin duo Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal – who accounted for 33 out of the 45 wickets to fall in the series – a stunning return.
The bowling tandem have a strike rate of 25 and 27.5 respectively, by far among the best in world cricket since the last World Cup.
They were just as effective in South Africa series. Both had a strike rate less than 20 for the six ODIs picking up 33 wickets. Their inexperience only got the better of them when the ball got a little damp. It was in those matches that they weren’t as effective – and not surprisingly, the only game that India lost.
The T20s were far more closely contested affair. Bhuvneshwar capped off his excellent South Africa campaign with his career-best figures of 5/24. Kumar became the first Indian pacer and only the second Indian bowler to take five or more wickets in a T20 match.
Similarly, Shikhar Dhawan turned around his visit to South Africa. He had a dismal time during the Tests, but as the limited overs games began, Dhawan found his rhythm. In the T20 leg of the series, he hit another gear averaging 47.66, which is nearly double his career average.
At the end of the eight weeks since the tour began, the defeat in Tests must feel like a missed opportunity for the Kohli-Shastri combination. But as far as limited-overs cricket goes, India is a force to reckon with and they more than proved it in South Africa. They flummoxed South African batsmen and steamrolled the bowlers.
The tour – arguably one of the most successful collective overseas efforts in India’s history – ended 8-4 in favour of India, who retained their world No 1 ranking in Tests and reclaimed the No 1 spot in ODIs. The team went to South Africa looking for the first bilateral series win of any kind, they returned with two trophies.