Ghosts of 66 and 81 linger, yet India’s Cape Town conquest is a win to savour | Cricket

Pundits and laymen alike were convinced that this was India’s moment, that never before were South Africa so ripe for the picking. Despite three batters on their first tour of South Africa, India boasted plenty of experience in the batting group. Even without Mohammed Shami, there was loads of bowling firepower with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj in the forefront. By contrast, South Africa’s batting was undercooked, the bowling by and large bereft of exposure to the rigours of Test cricket. If not now, then when?

Rohit Sharma is elated as Shreyas Iyer hits the winning runs to give India their first-ever Test win in Cape Town.(PTI)

A maiden series triumph bubble was burst in 210 overs and less than three days in Centurion when the lack of back-up for Bumrah and Siraj was mercilessly exposed by Dean Elgar and Marco Jansen. Once South Africa amassed 408 in response to India’s 245 in what were decidedly bowler-friendly conditions, only one team was in the hunt and Rohit Sharma’s aspirations of becoming the first Indian captain to lead the side to a series win in the Final Frontier buried in a heap of misery and disappointment.

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In recent times, India have displayed a resilience that has allowed them to put shattering defeat aside and come back rejuvenated. Never was that more in evidence than on the tour of Australia in 2020-21. Shot out for an embarrassing 36, their lowest Test score, in the first game in Adelaide and without skipper Virat Kohli for the three remaining matches, India regrouped spectacularly. Ajinkya Rahane led the side with imagination and from the front, his century in the next outing helping the team square the series in Melbourne before Rishabh Pant’s heroics hauled them over the line in a record chase in the fourth Test at the Gabba, where less than half the personnel who started the series figured in the playing XI. So why should this time be any different?

After all, India had their best to summon, with the exception of Shami and Pant. After all, this was a new dawn, a new year. After all, they still had the opportunity to walk away from the series with honours even and significant World Test Championship points in the bag. After all…

After all that happened at Newlands in Cape Town, India ticked one big box. The box of bouncebackability. In a magical display of seam bowling, Siraj opened the door on day one of the final Test; in a show of intent and purpose and embracing the leadership role with aplomb, Bumrah reprised the younger man’s heroics on day two with a six-wicket burst of his own. South Africa, riding high on the unexpected success at SuperSport Park, were driven to their knees, shot out for 55 on the first morning and succumbing to a seven-wicket shellacking. That the victory was accomplished in conditions that wouldn’t have been acceptable even in a club game made the result sweeter.

For India, as much as for Rohit, this was a much-needed shot in the arm. Since defeating South Africa in Centurion towards the end of 2021, India embarked on a spectacularly implosive run in Tests outside Asia and the Caribbean. They lost the last two Tests in South Africa in early 2022, were beaten by England in the final game of a five-Test series held over from the previous year after failing to defend 370-plus and were hammered by Australia in the WTC final at The Oval last summer. Centurion was their fifth consecutive loss in South Africa and England combined. Another defeat, and the tongues would have started wagging, if not the knives sharpened.

This was only Rohit’s fifth overseas Test as skipper – he has won two and lost as many, but this was special, apparent from the fact that he equated the Newlands victory with the Gabba heist. India had won a Test in South Africa in four of their last five visits; by extending it to five out of six, the affable Mumbaikar has reiterated his leadership and man-management skills, neither of which has received the approbation they deserve.

For Indian fans used until 2006 to one crushing blow after another in South Africa, the nadir being tallies of 100 and 66 in the Durban Test in 1996, to watch the home batters hopping and ducking and copping a few on body and limb must have been particularly satisfying. For a while now, India have become as good at giving as they used to get, thanks to the assemblage of quicks that is a legacy of the Virat Kohli-Ravi Shastri management era. This was the ultimate vindication of that legacy. The Newlands deck might as well have come with a disclaimer: ‘Be careful what you wish for…’

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