SA Tour Positives: 60 wickets in Tests, Plan A ready for World Cup
Virat Kohli's inimitable batting that exhausted all adjectives, Jasprit Bumrah fitting himself perfectly like an all-purpose block in a jigsaw puzzle and identifying the core for the 2019 World Cup in England were some of the notable positives to be drawn from India's highly successful tour of South Africa.
It was after many years that an Indian cricket team lived up to expectations outside the sub-continent, winning two out of the three formats and Kohli definitely deserves praise for not taking his foot off the pedal throughout the gruelling seven weeks in the 'Rainbow Nation'.
While the Test series defeat remains a glitch despite a stupendous 5-1 result in the ODIs and a 2-1 win in the T20Is, no one can disagree that India were competitive in the longer format too.
Mohammed Shami (15 from 3 games), Jasprit Bumrah (14 from 3 games), Bhuvneshwar Kumar (10 from 2 games) and Ishant Sharma (8 from 2 games) accounted for 47 of the 60 wickets, a massive fillip for a nation not known to throw up enough fast bowling talent.
While losing the Test match on a relatively good batting track at the Centurion will rankle Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri, the most heartening aspect was Bumrah's emergence as a potent Test bowler.
"Bumrah fits perfectly into the ideal eleven for us. He is someone that has given us breakthroughs when wanted in the series and he has bowled his heart out," the Indian captain had said after the end of the Test series.
"He really wanted to play Test cricket badly and has shown what a high-class bowler he is. He probably bowled with the experience of a guy who has played 40-50 games," Kohli's praise said it all.
Not for once did the Gujarat slinger look out of place in the fiercely competitive world of red-ball cricket.
The batting certainly wasn't up to the mark save skipper Kohli, who again was a few notches above his teammates, finishing with 286 runs in the Test matches -- 75 more than AB de Villiers' next best of 211.
Kohli neither changed his aggressive brand of captaincy nor his propensity to tinker with the playing XI in every game -- a trait that didn't completely work in the longer version.
In hindsight, his faith in Rohit Sharma's talent over Ajinkya Rahane's temperament, during the first two Tests did seem misplaced and came in for sharp criticism.
Rohit's poor run in the limited overs format could have amplified it further but 'King Kohli' came to the fore and hit three hundreds for 'breakfast, lunch and dinner' in six ODIs.
As chief coach Ravi Shastri said in his customary tongue-in-cheek manner.
"You want a new phrase to praise him, please go and buy an Oxford dictionary," Shastri said at the end of the ODI series.
A staggering 558 runs under his belt and an emphatic 5-1 series win later, Kohli was able to put the disappointments of the Test defeat to rest. While Faf du Plessis', AB de Villiers' absence for the better part did play a role but one cannot take away the intensity with which India played each match.
But the bigger gain was to more or less get his 'Plan A' for next year's ODI World Cup in England ready.
The two young wrist spinners (Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal), with 33 wickets, showed that their match-winning ability is not surface dependant. In Bhuvneshwar, Bumrah and Hardik Pandya as the all-rounder, the five-man bowling attack looks settled.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni is not exactly going anywhere till 2019 World Cup. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are the automatic Nos 1, 2 and 3 in this line-up.
It is the Nos 4 and 5, which the 'Men In Blue' will have to settle.
There are around five options for two slots.
Ajinkya Rahane, due to his success at No 4 position during the 2015 World Cup in Australia, is being considered for the role even though his strike-rate in the middle overs has repeatedly come under scanner.
Manish Pandey has done nothing wrong in limited chances that he has got, while Kedar Jadhav is a cheeky stroke player and his round arm off-breaks cause a lot of irritation to the batsman.
Then there's Shreyas Iyer, a natural strokeplayer and a prolific performer at the domestic level.
Last but not the least is veteran Suresh Raina, who looked hungrier than ever during the three-match T20 series.
A 'man of the match' award in the last T20 International would boost his confidence and it is being said in Indian cricket circles that his return in the 50-over format is just a matter of time.
Coach Shastri as usual sounded satisfied with team's effort.
"(In terms of World Cup preparation) Very good, because it is one step at a time. We have learnt some good habits on this trip. This is a young side and they have got a lot of tough tours coming up.
"I think they have conducted and handled themselves extremely well on this tour. One thing history tells me, I have been coming here since 1992, there is not one South African side in the world that anyone can say is a weak side."