It was a dull and gloomy Sunday morning. His pacers fresh after a good night’s sleep (that’s a guess, by the way) and the new ball available, MS Dhoni chose to operate with Ravindra Jadeja.
Yes, the left-arm spinner bowled well and held one end up, but in the ultimate analysis, the skipper’s so-called battle of attrition did not yield much.
With the wicket hardly providing the Indian pacers anything at all, using a shiny cherry in overcast conditions was possibly India’s best chance to polish off South Africa’s lower-order. But Dhoni thought otherwise. The Proteas didn’t mind it.
In the 41 overs (Nos. 105 to 146) on Day Four, India bowled with the aged ball, South Africa scored 132 runs for the loss of centurion Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn. And by the time the umpires forced the visitors to take the new ball, Robin Peterson and Faf du Plessis were pretty settled. And they went for it. Fathom this: the next 9.2 overs cost India 69 runs. South Africa were bowled out for 500 and took a huge lead of 166.
Dhoni’s tactics reminded many of the defensive methods adopted by yesteryear Indian teams on overseas tours: down the shutters.
Perhaps, Dhoni didn’t have enough faith in his quicks and didn’t quite expect them to do a Dale Steyn. Zaheer Khan wasn’t getting nip off the wicket. His pace has tapered off: he bowled around 127 kph. Ishant Sharma, too, looked a bit pedestrian on this surface. It could also be argued that India’s pace would have suited a well-set Kallis and du Plessis, slated to come in next.
Or is it that Dhoni thought that Jadeja alone was India’s best bet to limit South Africa’s lead, and thus persisted with the old ball? His faith in Jadeja could be gauged by the fact that the left-arm spinner bowled unchanged throughout the extended first session and eventually dismissed Kallis, besides keeping one end tight. South Africa’s frailties against left-arm spin may have been another factor that influenced Dhoni’s decision.
It’s unlikely that Dhoni was thinking about reverse swing with a scuffed-up ball. Had that been the case, Mohammad Shami would have bowled more overs than Sharma. Be that as may, it was still a contentious decision for the ball had aged and how. One thing’s for sure: Dhoni was already thinking of a draw and had involuntarily played into South Africa’s hands.
And if India do fail to save this Test, the batsmen must take blame. This is not a 334-run wicket. Truth is India were never in the game after Steyn’s six-wicket burst on Day Two.