Bhuvneshwar’s solo act not enough in Cuttack, as India fall two down

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When Bhuvneshwar Kumar scythed the match open with a probing exhibition of swing and seam bowling in the Power-play, the game seemed like a low-scoring thriller in the making. Indian hopes lingered after his three-wicket burst had South Africa on the knees in pursuit of a modest score of 148. But they soon went up in smoke and blended with the haze that had enveloped the Barabati Stadium, as South Africa wrapped up the game with 10 balls to spare and four wickets in hand.

After six overs, including the splendid Bhuvneshwar spell that read 3-0-10-3, South Africa were 29/3. That was as good as it got for the hosts in search of a series-levelling win. From then on, the visitors took utter control, first through a steadying-a-sinking-ship alliance between skipper Temba Bavuma and Heinrich Klaasen, where their priority was to ward off further damage, and then with a rampaging alliance between Klassen and David Miller. The first one cost India 64 runs in seven overs, and the second 51 in only 3.4 overs.

The protagonist, this time around, was Klassen with 81 runs off 46 balls — the tour seems to unearth new heroes for South Africa, and hence is becoming an even more profitable one in a World Cup year. Klaasen comes with a big-hitting reputation, a reason he displaced the scratchy Quinton de Kock for this game. But he had a large box to tick, his ability to play spin bowling in the subcontinent. He accomplished this with panache, cutting Yuzvendra Chahal and Axar Patel to ribbons. He smeared Chahal for three sixes, each stroke infused with telling power. Patel was meted out a six and a brace of boundaries in the only over he bowled.

Nothing worked for the spin duo — Patel was bereft of both bite and accuracy, the ball barely spun, whereas Chahal had not his trademark fizz. Then all the bowlers, apart from Bhuvneshwar, were unremarkable. Short on skill as well as energy — as if India turned up with just a solitary bowler. Chahal’s dip in form has been most worrying, as he is among the regular crew, unlike his largely second-string colleagues.

Disappointing with the willow

But as toothless as India’s bowling was, the defeat only exposed the vulnerabilities of their batsmen, most of them contenders rather than regulars in pursuit for permanent slots.

Among the prospects for World Cup spots, only Ishan Kishan is presenting a sturdy case for inclusion. His breezy 34 off 21 balls injected the impetus after a slack start. Kishan stuck to his strengths, slouching and swivelling on the back foot to take full toll of the short balls. Andre Nortje offered those gifts, as Kishan reeled off three sixes, two of them in one over. He lived and died by the same sword, as he spliced a Nortje short ball that had more skid and bounce on a surface that was not as quick as the Kotla one.

His dismissal decelerated India. Iyer’s 35-ball stay fluctuated between distress and pity. The sluggish nature of the strip induced numerous mistimed and miscued strokes. A leading edge, comically, soared over the long-on fence, whereas he had intended to chip Keshav Maharaj’s arm ball over long-on. He blindly put faith on one plan — scrape through the seamers’ overs and flay the spinners. But the backlog of dot balls would haunt him. At one point, he was 12 off 15 balls, before Tabraiz Shamsi’s introduction unshackled him. He would step out and swing the left-arm wrist-spinner for a six and a four. But relentlessly attacking the spinners, or any brand of bowling, is risk-coated. Rishabh Pant perished soon, slapping his bat with hard hands at a wide ball from Maharaj.

From there, India’s batting was at best laborious. With the score at 70/3 in 10 overs, they were trapped in a dilemma whether to attack or defend. Such confusion often instigates chaos. The thinking gets muddled. So Hardik Pandya, deputed as the power-hitter, tried to back away and cut Wayne Parnell from around the stumps. Instead, he saw the ball cut back into him like an errant driver at a U-turn and disarray his leg-stump. The persistent Dwaine Pretorius put Iyer out of his misery while Nortje and Wayne Parnell strangled the home side with aggression and smarts. Nortje was not at full pelt, barely strumming the high notes of pace he is capable of, but still harried and harassed them. Parnell mixed his angles and pace while occasionally purchasing seam movement.

Master at work

But the real destroyer was Kagiso Rabada, who struck a delightful rhythm. At his powerful peak, he is pure music. Rhythmic synchronisation of limbs, leading to a balletic load-up and lissome release. He worked over Ruturaj Gaikwad like a master would a novice — four balls that alternated between shorter and hard lengths, before slipping in a fuller ball in the fifth-sixth stump channel. The deception was devious — the ball was full, but not drivable, there was width, but not enough for Gaikwad to free his arms and drive. The youngster has exceptionally good hands, but not good enough to save him from being Rabada’s 50th snare in T20 Internationals. By now, Gaikwad might have had a taste of high-level, high-art bowling at the international level.

In the end, Dinesh Karthik had to turbocharge his team to a competent total with a typically (and intentionally) frantic 30 off 21 balls. That barely sufficed in the end.

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