South Africa scored an emphatic nine-wicket victory over India in the fifth and final One-Day International to win the series 4-0, at Supersport Park, Centurion, on Sunday.
Chasing 201 for victory, the hosts raced away to the target in 31.2 overs, thanks to an opening partnership of 173 runs between Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers.
De Villiers, who took on the opener's role for the first time in the series in place of Loots Bossman, was unbeaten on 92.
Smith, after failing in the earlier matches, finally struck form, scoring a well-compiled 85-ball 79 before being dismissed in the 29th over.
Earlier, Sachin Tendulkar scored a 97-ball 55 and Mahendra Singh Dhoni 44 to guide India to the 200-run mark for the first time in the series.
Shaun Pollock, who claimed 2 wickets for 17 runs in ten overs was adjudged man of the match and series.
For the first time this series, Graeme Smith opted to bowl first on winning the toss. (Equally interestingly, Virender Sehwag said he would have opted to bat first anyway).
If you ignore Viru's words as an attempt to put the best face on it, and take Smith's reaction as more indicative of the nature of the wicket, you likely would be closer to the mark.
The wicket, during the pitch report, looked hard, with bounce and pace in it and a hint of moisture to liven things up; given it is a day game, the team batting second is not likely to have to cope with light-related conditions, and the pitch should ease out by then, so batting second does look like a good option on this wicket.
For India, the most significant aspect of a game that is insignificant in terms of dictating the outcome of the series is the return of VVS Laxman to the one-day eleven. He has made no secret of his desire to play in a World Cup; a no-pressure game, but testing opposition, gives him an early opportunity to begin earning brownie points.
Mohammad Kaif is out - and that is perhaps the final indication that a player thought at one time to be the face of the future has exhausted his opportunities. It is unlikely his omission will cause raised eyebrows; Kaif has for too long now been the unpaid IOU of Indian cricket, and as Brian Lara said of Ramnaresh Sarwan not so long ago, maybe time out will give him an opportunity to get his mind wrapped around what he needs to do, and how he needs to do it.
Dinesh Karthick gets another opportunity - and that is indicative as much of nascent promise shown in the field and with the bat, as to the continued disenchantment with Suresh Raina. Dinesh Mongia's inclusion, meanwhile, comes as another opportunity for a player who occasionally promises much, while delivering less than half. (While on that, much was made of his calm, sensible batting in the Twenty20, and yes he did keep his head and bat as the situation demanded - but equally noticeable was the endless number of occasions on which he seemed at sea to the delivery slanting across and hitting length, so I would hold off on the euphoria).
Anyways, for India, playing without pressure on a seam-friendly track against tough opposition, this is as good a chance as any to, first, get a confidence-boosting win and regain a measure of momentum and secondly, for the batsmen in particular, to get in some good practice ahead of the Test series.
It was a patchy kind of start. Virender Sehwag flayed the first ball of the innings, from Shaun Pollock, through point for four to set things up; and was duly beaten outside off by a bowler operating with a radar-controlled ball.
At the other end, Makhaya Ntini began with four wides to Tendulkar; in passing, you wondered whether it might have been a plan for Graeme Smith to bowl Ntini in the first over, against Sehwag, and see if Pollock, bowling the second over, couldn't continue his good work against his bunny, Tendulkar, earning more psychological points ahead of the Tests.
In a preview to what the Tests hold in store, Pollock settled down to strangle Sehwag by bowling either full on the off stump, or just outside jagging it back in to cramp the batsman for room.
Just occasionally, he would bowl the one outside off leaving the batsman - and one such in the second over saw a tentative Sehwag, anticipating the ball coming in, push at it for the ball to find the edge; for the first time this series, Smith at first slip reacted late, and a possible catch went through to third man for four.
At the other end, a fired up Ntini made Tendulkar hop, with a brutish lifter in the first over that the batsman fended away awkwardly on the leg side before being beaten for pace, line and length around off a ball later. Off the 9th ball he faced, Tendulkar got off the mark, pushing a fullish delivery from Ntini off his pads onto the on side for a scampered single.
That single off Ntini set up Pollock versus Tendulkar in the fifth over; the bowler won brownie points with a line around off that clearly had Tendulkar uncertain whether the ball was cutting in or leaving him. Tendulkar, yet again, opted to stay on the top of the crease, rather than come fully forward; the end result was to leave him in uncertain territory as he gave Pollock a maiden to go with the one he had earlier played against Ntini. A single from Sehwag off the first ball of the next over, and Tendulkar played out five more dots against Ntini.
Sehwag, meanwhile, was pretty much his usual self - `usual', in the sense that he played as he has been playing of late. He wafted outside off, upper edging one that fortunately fell short of deep third man; he missed a few; played one immaculate defensive push by way of showing that he knew how; then drove airily outside his off stump, at a Pollock delivery leaving the bat which the batsman thought was coming in; this time, the edge was fainter, and went straight through to Mark Boucher (11/22; India 18/1)
VVS Laxman lasted exactly one ball - the last ball of the 7th, which Pollock bowled down the corridor, seaming away latge. Laxman stood where he was and poked at it with hard hands, as he is prone to do early in his innings; the thick edge went low to Smith at first slip; the Proteas captain took it with the softest of hands (0/1; 18/2) and that, at least for now, was that.
Dinesh Mongia watched the first ball of the 9th over - Pollock's hat-trick ball - thru outside off, then smoothly turned the next through leg for a brace to get his feet wet.
The first ten overs vindicated Smith's thinking in bowling first, just as much as it showed up Sehwag's statement that he would have batted first anyway. For the rest of the team now, it is about consolidation; for Tendulkar, meanwhile, it is a grim battle not against the bowling so much as against whatever personal demons seem to be shackling his feet, and his bat.
Thus far, there have been few signs of dominant intent; a pull at Ntini in the 10th over looked more an act of desperation than of returning confidence. The way the senior player bats on from here should be interesting, from the long term point of view.
After ten, India was 22/2; Tendulkar batting 3/26 and Mongia batting 5/11.
Shaun Pollock's first spell: 7-3-11-2. Versus Tendulkar, 13 deliveries, 12 dots, one run.
Tells two tales, those figures: the first, of a senior bowler at the peak of his powers, and the second, of a batsman fighting for touch, and intent on denying his wicket to a bowler who has tormented him thus far this series.
In fact, Tendulkar's intent has remained survival - and survive he has, though in the process both Pollock and Ntini (6-1-15-0; 20 deliveries, 19 dot balls, one three versus Tendulkar) made him look extraordinarily human; extremely fallible.
The trouble with batting for survival is that when the bad ball comes along, you fail to put it away. Time and again, to short stuff outside off that he in his pomp would have put away to any corner of the park, he went back, tried to force and ended up hitting into the ground.
His first four came in the 16th over, via a thick outside edge that went wide of the slips to third man for four.
The tightness of line and length dissipated after Ntini and Pollock yielded the ball to Kallis and Andre Nel, but the South African fielding promptly came to the party, upping its performance to deny runs and subject the two batsmen to the death of a thousand stops.
There was for instance this blistering back foot drive off Nel by Dinesh Mongia. At point, Gibbs dived and took the sting out of it, but it was still headed for a couple, at least, when de Villiers sprinted around from cover, dived, grabbed the ball and was up, in position to throw down the stumps. No run.
Even the best of fielding sides, though, cannot completely cover for the fact that neither Kallis nor Nel have the bowling nous of Pollock or the pace and fire of Ntini; this allowed Tendulkar opportunities, as this spell of ten overs wound down, to free his arms at least occasionally to find runs.
The 18th over was an exemplar: Tendulkar smashed the first ball square to point with force enough to make even Gibbs misfield for a brace; the third ball, dropped a bit short, was sighted early and pulled in front of midwicket for four; the fourth ball erred on the side of fullness and was punched down the ground for another four.
Not much on Mongia during this phase, because there was not much of Mongia during this phase. The left hander concentrated on keeping his wicket intact; on the positive side, he restrained himself from pushing and prodding outside his off, a blemish that had made him look less than convincing the other day during his Twenty20 knock.
Clearly, the team thinking appears to be that at least once, it has to bat through the full quota of overs. After 20, India has scored 50/2.
Kallis went for 20 in four overs, one of which was a maiden; that prompted the introduction, in the 22nd over, of the left arm orthodox spin of Robin Petersen.
In the 23rd, Andre Nel banged one in; the softer ball, on this surface, didn't bounce as much as the length demanded; it was also a slower ball (121k, as opposed to his normal 135+). Tendulkar was looking to let it go over his left shoulder; the ball however kept low enough to give the batsman a jarring low bang on the elbow. Though he was wearing a protector, the blow was hard enough to force immediately bruising/swelling; it caused a hold up while emergency repairs were carried out by the physio.
Petersen is not exactly the most scary of spinners; his utility lies in a very full length on wicket to wicket line, forcing the batsman to play in predictable straight lines that can be blocked by strategically placed fielders.
Tendulkar countered, in the 24th, by stepping to leg to make room, carving one over point and slamming another inside out over extra cover to find the fence and wake up the somnolent scorers. And in the 26th, when Petersen sought to block the inside out hitting by going on a middle line, Tendulkar paddled the four to fine leg. In the 28th, Petersen tried the round the wicket line - and this time, was swept in orthodox fashion to the fine leg fence. The intent was clearly to keep pressure on the bowler who has clearly been identified as the weak link in the attack.
At the halfway stage, India was 74/2. Nel's first spell was if anything more miserly than Pollock's (6-1-10-0), but the bowler was visibly tiring as he struggled to make things happen on a wicket that was getting perceptibly slower and lower; he was switched off and Kallis brought back on in the 27th.
Beaten outside off by a beauty from Kallis in the 29th, Tendulkar to the very next ball played a delicate cut, angling the bat to take the ball above point. Not quite the most orthodox way to play the shot, but necessary given that Gibbs was letting nothing through that was hit along the ground.
The resulting four took India to 90/2, and Tendulkar to 53/86. Not the prettiest, most authentic, of his 74 half centuries in ODIs, but noticeably for the grim determination on display, and the focused intent to struggle on despite being made to look embarrassingly human by the SA pacemen.
At the end of 30 overs, India had made 100/2, on a wicket where the experts suggest 230 could be a defensible total. Tendulkar 54/89; Mongia 25/68 and Petersen, having given 32 in five, still has five to bowl.
In the 31st over, Graeme Smith tossed the ball back to Shaun Pollock, in a bid to break the partnership before the two batsmen, by now reasonably set (82/139 the partnership at that point), began opening out.
And sure enough Pollock, settling immediately into his radar-controlled length just back of good on off, bowled Tendulkar a maiden to start with.
Justin Kemp took over for Petersen at the other end - and the most ordinary of deliveries got the wicket SA was looking for. The ball was short and wide, Sachin leant into it and smacked it hard into the covers; de Villiers dived sideways and forwards to pluck an impossible catch, as the ball was looking to hit the turf (55/97; India 103/3; Tendulkar 72 dots, 17 singles; 8 fours).
Out came MS Dhoni, with enough overs to afford the luxury of taking time to settle down. At the other end Dinesh Mongia, now the senior partner, attempted to free his shoulders, failed to make much headway (and narrowly survived when an inner edge off Pollock bounced just in front of Boucher), and then showed that his judgment of the short single is still way short of the mark.
Twice, he called Dhoni for runs that didn't exist, then took off himself and was lucky the normally sure de Villiers missed with the throw, when Mongia was a good five feet short of his ground.
The 35th over was the last, in this match, for Pollock; the veteran ended with scarcely believable figures of 10-4-17-2. His series figures are, if anything, even more amazing: 4 matches, 36 overs, 9 maidens, 83 runs, and ten wickets for an average of 8.30; an economy rate of 2.30 and a strike rate of a wicket every 21-odd balls (and to think that a year or so ago, questions were being asked, in SA and elsewhere, whether Pollock had reached his use-by date).
Smith continued to throw the dice, bringing Ntini, with four overs left in his quota, on at the end vacated by Pollock. Justin Kemp, at the other end, did his team proud, bowling a tight line to Dhoni, keeping the ball just short of driving length and negating, with his relative economy, the damage done by Petersen's prodigality.
The Indians must have figured that Kemp and Petersen should go; Mongia in particular fretted at his inability to get the bowler away and, in the 38th, tried to manufacture something, moving across his stumps looking to paddle the bowler down to fine leg. He missed; Kemp was straight enough to hit middle; and Mongia, who had batted 88 deliveries for 41 without ever looking like taking charge, walked off for the last time this tour (127/4).
Dinesh Karthick (`Is he the new Raina?', asks the Times today in headlines this big. Err, and the old Raina was who?) began with a delicate little dab to third man off Kemp; at the end of 40 overs, India had moved to 138/4 with Dhoni very quietly on to 14 off 25.
At the 40-over mark, India's innings boasted a statistic I don't off hand remember seeing before.
Off the 240 legitimate deliveries bowled till then, India had managed 134 runs - and played 143 dot balls.
That underlined two related facets of India's play in this series thus far: the batsmen have been unable to rotate strike, to take the single and keep the board ticking. And though considerable credit belongs to the South African close cordon, it needs mentioning that batsmen, perhaps scared into stupor by the fielding quality, rarely if ever looked to work the ball around for singles.
To the first ball of the 41st, with Andre Nel taking over from Ntini, Dinesh Karthick walked a couple of miles outside his off, turned his bat around so the hitting surface was facing the skies, and scooped the ball off his middle stump over the keeper's head and to the fence - the shot that had spelt the end of Mongia, but played with considerably more conviction.
A wound up Nel promptly shortened his length and increased his pace; Karthick spent the rest of the over ducking, dodging, weaving and smiling at the odd mouthful from a bowler who, if he hadn't taken to cricket, could likely have become one of the orators of our time he talks that much.
In the 43rd, it was Dhoni's turn - a ball pitched fuller was hoisted, with tremendous bat speed through the hitting arc, back over the bowler's head for a straight six, just about the one thing a fast bowler finds more insulting than to be ramped for four behind the keeper before carving a single to turn the strike over.
A furious Nel stormed in, bowled one fast and straight and lifting along the corridor and Karthick, looking again to play the upper cut over the keeper's head, managed merely to make the ball glide along the toe of his bat through to Boucher (11/15; India 154/5).
At the other end, it was Kallis' turn to bite his nails at Dhoni. A tennis forehand was smashed into the ground at his feet; the next ball saw a furious windup and pull that sent the ball soaring over the backward square leg fence for his second six.
Irfan Pathan, sensibly, settled down to pushing the singles and handing the strike right back to Dhoni. He looked good as long as he was getting behind the line and playing in straight lines - but then, with a little over four overs still to go, the left handed batsman got cute, stepping away from the stumps to try and carve a four to third man. Kallis was dead straight, the ball got the edge of the beat the bat and crashed into middle and India lost another man just when it could least afford to (7/9; 173/6).
The best part of the series has been the cat and mouse game between Dhoni and the Proteas bowlers, with each playing the cat in turn. The bowlers have been consistently altering lines and lengths; trying the very full length, then switching to just back of good length, and varying lines. Dhoni has, by way of response, attempted to come forward and hit on the up; stay back and carve square; move across and flick.
Interesting stuff all of it, and the battle underlines the other important aspect of this ODI tour - Dhoni has been the only batsman in the Indian side to face up to the SA pacers without fear.
Take the 47th over for instance - Nel to Dhoni, and the batsman walked across, took the ball onto his pads and flicked to fine leg for four. Some four balls later, a Nel lifter left the batsman fishing; the bowler paused in his follow through to deliver a speech lengthier than Mark Antony's funeral oration. In response, Dhoni this time stepped a half pace to leg, made room and cracked the last ball up and over the keeper to the third man fence for four, following through by strolling down the pitch with a broad grin at the discomfited bowler.
It's all in the attitude, after all - and it is perhaps no coincidence that Dhoni alone has come off with honors on this tour. In four matches, he has 139 runs at 34.75, and a strike rate of 95.86. The next best strike rate, and average, goes to Irfan Pathan (27.5 at 74.32 runs per hundred balls; Sehwag's strike rate is just 60.4; Tendulkar's 58.12).
Bhajji, meanwhile, had a swipe at Ntini, looking to slam him over midwicket and managing only to make the ball flare off his bat down to third man where Pollock, from a wide position, raced to his left, then slid on one knee to get under the ball and hold a good outfield catch (1/7; 183/7).
What followed was scarcely credible. In Ntini's next over, Dhoni wound up and smashed a ball from outside off onto the on side. The ball, hit right off the middle, was traveling at considerable pace; Andre Nel, on the straight side at long on, raced over to his right, changed direction in mid stride as he saw the ball curving away from him, threw himself headlong with both hands, superman style, held out in front of him, and came up with the ball in his grasp.
It was a remarkable catch at any time; coming from a quick bowler who had just finished an intense over, it took the breath away. More prosaically, it took Dhoni away (44/49; India 183/8) just when India needed him to maximize whatever deliveries were left.
Zaheer swung and hit, over cover for four; he swung and missed, swung and missed, then swung and lifted Ntini way over long on for a huge six. India, thus, managed to reach the 200 mark with Ntini's full toss going through a Kumble swipe to clean up middle stump off the last ball of the over.
The final score is a good 40, 45 runs short of where India would have wanted to be; it is at least 30 short of the comfort zone. Whether it is enough to make a fight out of this game depends on two factors: How the opening bowlers bowl the first ten overs, and what sort of form, and mood, Harbhajan Singh is on a track that should afford him more help than any thus far in the series.
South Africa innings
Graeme Smith is winning matches, but that he is feeling the pressure of a dip in his personal form became apparent when, for the first time this series - and the first time in a long time - he gave up first strike to his partner.
Sometimes, that is all it takes to turn things round - admitting you have a problem, and looking to your mates to help work around it.
After AB de Villiers, upped to opener in place of Loots Bosman, started things off by carving the third ball of the innings, from Zaheer Khan, through point for four, Smith got into the act, first playing a flowing cover drive off Sreesanth to bring up his first runs of the series, then flicked a full length delivery off his pads for four more.
He was lucky enough, even so - the third ball he faced saw him yet again pushing down the wrong line to Sreesanth to be struck on the pads in front of middle stump; on this occasion, he was saved because the bowler's foot had fractionally crossed the line.
At the other end, Mohammad Kaif (on the field so Tendulkar could rest his injury) showed that with his axing from the Test side, the heart has gone out of his game. Sreesanth bowled short and wide, de Villiers blasted at it, the ball went straight to point and Kaif dropped a sitter.
Again, the contrast was startling - you had South Africans making catches out of seemingly clean hits; here you had reputedly the best fielder in the side, daydreaming early in an innings where, given the small total the team was defending, it was desperately vital to strike hard, often, and early.
Elsewhere, both new ball bowlers got extravagant seam movement early on - but that became a problem in itself, with the ball going wide of the stumps thanks to the shortness of length. By the time they figured out that the trick was to increase length, SA had already blasted 26 off the first five, and were well away.
Zaheer, inspirational in the first three ODIs, appeared to have run out of steam here. He was very quick to switch to around the wicket against the right hander, which merely threw him off rhythm; de Villiers helped things along by playing some stunning drives to overpitched deliveries that forced the bowler back over the wicket.
Zaheer, rather than stick to what has worked in the past, took to shortening his length; de Villiers promptly went down on one knee to blaze him through extra cover.
At the other end, Smith Chinese-cut Sreesanth for four, then played a ferocious pull when the bowler dropped the next one short; three overs from the right armer leaked 25 runs and Irfan Pathan had to be brought on, as early as the 8th over.
That was about as effective as an umbrella in a hurricane - Pathan's fourth ball was short and de Villiers launched it over the square leg fence with a fierce hook; the fifth ball was on leg stump and the batsman flicked it fine for four more. The sixth was short again, and again was pulled - this time in front of midwicket for four, to yield 13 in the over and have SA racing to 60/0 IN 8.
It was in the 9th over that Smith squared up to Zaheer for the first time; the Proteas skipper played within himself, giving the bowler a lot of respect and batting without any extravagance.
Pathan's one over was enough; he was switched off and Harbhajan got to bowl as early as the 10th over. At the end of that phase, SA had raced to 63/0 and the target had already shrunk dramatically.
The 11th over saw Kumble joining Harbhajan at the bowling crease in a double spin attack.
The damage, however, had already been done - in the entire Indian innings, 18 fours had been hit besides the two sixes; SA on the other hand had 12 fours in the first ten. With almost a third of the total knocked off, and with the required rate reduced to 3.3 in the remaining 40 overs, there was no pressure on the two openers.
Once he got a good sighter at both spinners, de Villiers opened out, driving Kumble inside out through extra cover in the 13th, then rocking back to slap Harbhajan against the turn through point in the 14th. Smith, too, came to the party, dancing down to Harbhajan later in the same over, getting under the ball and hoisting him over the head of the cameraman straight behind the bowler's back.
Early on in his autobiography Out of My Comfort Zone, Steve Waugh says bad body language is a bit like underarm odor; not readily apparent to yourself, but picked up instantly by everyone around you.
Out there on the park, the Indian body language was rank - and easily picked up by anyone watching as they slouched through the motions. Clearly, any desire to at least begin a reversal of fortunes by winning even the final, no-account game had long since evaporated.
The 100 came up in the 17th over; neither spinner got the sort of bite and turn the on-air experts were nattering on about prior to the game; the Proteas began treating the remainder of the chase like a little stroll in the park.
Meanwhile, was having an email exchange with a colleague, on what the Indians could have done - and the first thought I had was this: When Sehwag saw Smith strolling to the non-striking end while de Villiers took first guard, what did that tell him?
Clearly, that Smith was not comfortable facing up to Zaheer Khan.
What could that have prompted to do? Equally clearly, to toss the ball to Sreesanth and, while walking past Smith to his fielding position, tell the Proteas skipper `Doesn't matter what end you stand at, mate - you still get Zaheer; you can run but you can't hide.'
That sort of tactical nous, though, doesn't come easy to our `instinctive' cricketers for whom thinking on their feet is clearly not a forte. Pity - it was such an obvious psychological trick to pull.
Instead, the team allowed a clearly apprehensive Smith to duck his nemesis for a full eight overs. As a commentary on the amount of thinking going on out in the park, that is as eloquent as any.
At the end of 20 overs, SA had made 119/0; de Villiers had crossed his half century, Smith is a run away from his own; the required run rate had fallen to 2.71 and there is every indication that all of us can go home early tonight.
That helps - I have a 6 am flight to catch, tomorrow, to Delhi.
With Harbhajan Singh going for 31 in six, Sehwag went back to Pathan, and the South Africans looked to club everything he threw at them. Clearly, they know he is under pressure; as clearly, they want to keep the pressure on ahead of the Tests.
Pathan didn't help his cause by bowling too short, too often, allowing both batsmen to rock back and pull. In their eagerness, the two Proteas openers overhit the ball and let the young seam bowler off the hook a bit, taking only four off his come back over.
They made up for it at the other end, though, with Smith creaming the first ball of Kumble's 7th over straight back past the startled bowler, who couldn't have expected a batsman to come dancing down to his flat, full line and length.
Smith, by then past his 50 - good going for a batsman who hadn't managed a run in three previous outings - and with victory assured, now decided to settle his personal scores with Zaheer Khan.
In the 27th over, he first came waltzing down the track to blast Zaheer, inside out, over long off in the fashion he had employed against Pathan earlier. Two deliveries later, de Villiers stayed back to the predictable shorter one and clubbed it with venomous fury over the extra cover boundary.
By this point, the Indians were looking not just defeated, but humiliated; their demeanor was of a bunch of blokes who wanted the carnage over with so they could go off the park and hide.
Harbhajan came back on, Smith went after him and for once in this knock, mishit an attempt to clear long on, not quite getting to the pitch and, as a result, hoisting the ball to Karthick patrolling the boundary in that area (79/84; SA 173/1); the fielder timed his jump nicely to hold a good catch.
Apparently the frontline batsmen couldn't be bothered - they sent out Shaun Pollock to finish it off. The all rounder was ready, able and willing - the second ball of the 30th over, from Pathan, was blasted on the up and over mid off for four; the fourth saw Pollock rock back and pull another four; the fifth had him dance down and waft over long on.
It didn't seem to bother him that at the other end, his partner was on 86 and 14 short of a century - his job was to finish it off, and he went a long way towards that with his contemptuous assault on Pathan. At the end of 30 overs, SA was 192/1; they needed just 9 more to win - surely, you don't need another report after this one?
Right, then. over and, for now, out; as for what implications this series has in the greater scheme of things, that and much else, on blog, once I get back from Delhi.