The Indian tour of South Africa has finally ended. On a losing note as it began, but this time, perhaps, a loss that can be stomached because it was not a humiliating one. It was a game that seemed to be well in hand but the opposition never lost heart and applied the right kind of pressure. India buckled and then caved in.
In some respects, the game had an uncanny resemblance to the World Cup semi-final between Australia and the West Indies, when the latter lost a game which they had well in hand. India were in a similar position and then collapsed badly at the end. Dravid's departure seemed to spark some kind of feeling that it was all over even though the run-rate at that point was down to a very manageable one.
Dravid, playing an innings something like the one Chanderpaul did for the Windies then, laid to rest any doubts that he is suited for one-day cricket. His 50 came in 44 balls and he seemed to have decided that he would stay there until the 251 had been raised. Perhaps he should have just stuck there after the rate had been reduced to a run a ball and let Jadeja get going. One cannot fault him for getting out because any slowing down would have meant some panic in the ranks and India has been known to wilt under pressure.
But if India had won, it wouldn't have been fair. The previous day, rain had saved them after they had managed just 191. Just 11 overs more and it would have been a match that day. South Africa, after a clean run in the preliminaries, were the form team and deserved the win. But the Springboks have been known to maintain just such a clean slate and then buckle under when it comes to a knock-out. Memories of the World Cup defeat would still be very strong in their minds.
There are some lessons for India. One, had the same team been touring from the start, then the players would have got that much cricket and been more accustomed to South African tactics. Karim had just a few games, so did Singh and Jadeja. Playing Mongia for this game would, perhaps, have made more sense. But then perhaps he was left out for having run out Azharuddin the previous day instead of sacrificing his own wicket and saving that of the man in form.
The other things which India must learn is patience. Jadeja and Singh seemed to have enough of this attribute during the game against Zimbabwe and they faced a much more difficult target that time. But they had to contend with bowling which could not match up to what Donald produced in his final over. Singles are as effective a way of getting to a target as big hits and had the batsmen kept their heads, then the trophy would surely have ended up in different hands.
Disturbing a winning combine is something which few teams do. India chose to do this, dropping Mongia and Joshi. There was no reason to do so. Karim seems to be expected to repeat that first innings of his every time. He is not in that class. Mongia is a much more experienced batsman. It is, of course, difficult to say whether these changes would have made a difference. But there are certain tried and tested rules in sport and people generally tend to follow them. India chose to do otherwise.
There is, thus, nothing much to show as the team leaves for home. A few will be dropped and others may well join before the team emplanes for the Caribbean to meet the West Indies who would definitely want to make someone pay for the bitter disappointment Down Under. This tour will be infinitely more difficult than the one that just ended. It remains to be seen whether the lessons learnt in South Africa are put to good use in the Caribbean.