India failed to bat out the 50 overs for the third successive match and lost the fourth one-day international against South Africa by 80 runs, in Port Elizabeth, on Wednesday.
South Africa, defending a target of 244, dismissed India for 163 runs, in 38.1 overs, to take an unassailable 3-0 lead in the five-match series. The first match was rained off.
Makhaya Ntini (2 for 34) and Shaun Pollock (2 for 23) once again did the damage upfront, reducing India to 82 for five inside 20 overs.
All-rounder Irfan Pathan played a resolute innings of 47 not out, but the knock came too late in the day for the tourists.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni also sparkled briefly, hitting a six and four boundaries for 26 runs off 21 balls.
Justin Kemp, who failed to get on the board while batting, returned with the ball to grab three wickets and polish off the Indian tail.
Earlier, Herschelle Gibbs hit an unbeaten 93 to steer South Africa to a competitive 243 for eight.
Gibbs, named man of the match, top-scored after coming to the crease when South Africa had slumped to six for two in the fourth over.
He anchored the rest of the innings, and shared half-century stands with Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Pollock.
India's task of pulling one back to stay alive in the series just got tougher - and I'm not referring to Rahul Dravid's injury, or Munaf Patel's continued unavailability.
Proteas skipper Graeme Smith has just won the toss and opted for first strike - in a ground where there is a question mark about the quality of the lights, ergo a huge disadvantage in batting second.
Andre Nel returns for South Africa, which adds to the difficulty quotient. Meanwhile, India appears to be following through on the idea of having Sachin Tendulkar anchor the innings in the middle - Wasim Jaffer returns to the playing eleven, and will almost certainly pair with stand-in skipper Virender Sehwag at the top of the order.
The dropping of Harbhajan Singh makes sense in a way. The South African pitches have been providing bounce, but little turn - and that means Bajji merely comes nicely onto the bat, without posing the sort of challenges that he does in more friendly conditions.
Pathan, Agarkar, Khan and Sreesanth with pace; Kumble with spin; Sehwag and Sachin with part time options are the available resources at the team's disposal, and it will take one heck of a focused effort in the field to ensure that India doesn't end up climbing a mountain of runs in indifferent light.
South Africa innings
The Proteas captain has been winning tosses and matches, so not too many questions will be asked about his personal form.
Which is a good thing if your name is Graeme Smith; for the third game running, he fell to Zaheer Khan in the opening over.
What should really worry him is the predictable nature of the dismissal. It was almost as if Zaheer was telling himself he merely had to do bowl on the stumps on length to get his man.
Zaheer's first three deliveries were bang on target; the first caught the pad but not the decision, the third lined the batsman up and nailed him bang in front of off and middle.
The ball was angling in towards off, then seaming further in; Smith, as he had at Durban and Newlands, walked into his stroke and pushed hesitantly down the wrong line (0/1).
Jacques Kallies got a peach of a delivery first up, and edged tentatively to fine leg for four. Zaheer caught him on the pad next up, but this time the delivery had landed just outside the leg stump.
It was a great first over -- and Shantakumaran Sreesanth, coming into the side for Harbhajan Singh, kept the pressure going with a controlled over where the emphasis was on a line just outside off, seaming away a fraction to keep the batsmen tentative.
Loots Bosman, like Smith, has looked out of his depth thus far in the series; it took Sreesanth just two deliveries to take him out. With the first ball of his second over, the right arm seamer landed an inswinger on good length; Bosman like Smith addressed the ball on the walk, and played all over and around it to lose middle stump (0/2; 6/2 SA).
Both opening bowlers bowled a noticeably fuller line, letting the ball swing; both got lift out of the wicket with the hard new ball.
Kallis, who in the previous game had played a wild drive across the line at Zaheer to gift his wicket, looked far more controlled here. Cautious initially, he came into his own in the sixth over, when Sreeshanth first under-pitched, then over-pitched. The first was driven on the up between cover and mid off; the second, stroked between point and cover, for successive fours that served to release some of the tension.
There was heartache for Sreesanth in the 8th over, when a well directed short ball had Herschelle Gibbs (2/8 at that point) hooking straight to square leg; the celebration of bowler and fielder coincided with the umpire's outstretched hand signaling the no-ball (SA 23/2).
At the other end, Kallis began to look increasingly ominous, in successive overs driving Zaheer over mid off, then flicking him through midwicket off the pads before stamping his authority with a brilliantly executed straight drive that made light of the full length and late swing.
It is early days yet, but one noticeable difference between Virender Sehwag's field placement and that of Rahul Dravid is the depth at which the fielders stand from the bat. Sehwag seemed to prefer them standing a yard or three closer in - a practice that in the early overs ensured there were no tip-and-run singles on offer to facilitate easy strike rotation.
A statistic in point: The first five overs produced 27 dot balls and just three singles; the next set of five overs produced 20 dot balls and three singles.
At the end of ten overs, SA are 33/2. Kallis looks in control on 28/42; Gibbs with 3/13 is yet to match that comfort level.
Ajit Agarkar, who had a nightmare at Newlands with the new ball, was reverted to first change, bowling in place of Sreesanth (5-1-16-1) in the 12th over. And at the other end, Irfan Pathan switched on for Zaheer (6-1-26-1) in the 13th.
The Gibbs-Kallis partnership began showing ominous signs, with the 50 of the association coming off 66 deliveries and, in the process, digging South Africa out of the hole left by the early fall of the two openers.
Interestingly Gibbs, who has been accused of being as profligate as he is prodigious, made a visible attempt to dig in, taking his time to settle down and opening his shoulders only when length and line lapses invited him to.
Thus, when Agarkar bowled the last ball of the 14th over short and wide, Gibbs crashed it off the back foot through cover point; Pathan began the 15th with a ball too full and too wide of off, and Gibbs freed his arms to smash it through mid off.
India's best chance came in the 16th over, when Kallis pushed Agarkar to mid off and attempted to sneak a run. The field, set closer than is the norm for Indian fields, made the intent suicidal; Kaif however couldn't hit the stumps and Kallis, a good foot outside his ground at the time, survived.
During this phase, especially for Agarkar, Sehwag again attempted an interesting field: slip, point standing up; cover point standing a trifle back to support point; cover standing up, extra cover a touch back in support. The field made run-scoring difficult on that side of the ground, and papered over the potential problem of Agarkar bowling on the short side, and outside off, most of the time.
The right arm seamer, though, continued the profligacy of the previous game; three overs for 20 runs forced Sehwag to take him off and bring Anil Kumble on in the 18th over.
The move paid off immediately - the leggie's first ball, outside off and on length, saw Kallis rocking back to force through point; the bounce Kumble gets defeated the shot and found the edge, for Dhoni to hold (49/62; SA 75/3). The wicket was opportune in two ways: the partnership, of 69 runs at 4.9, was beginning to put SA in the ascendant; equally to the point, Kallis was increasingly looking in the mood for a big one.
AB de Villiers greeted the first ball of Kumble's second over, the 20th, with a lovely shimmy down the track to loft over the long off fence for the first six of the innings; Kumble increased his length with the second ball, the batsman attempted a cutesy paddle, missed and was trapped bang in front (13/8; SA 93/4).
The Indians exhibited considerably more focus, and control, with the ball and in the field; there was visibly more energy to their efforts that in the previous two games. And this translated into telling stats: at the end of 20 overs, there was 76 dot balls against just 26 singles. Tellingly, however, there were 13 fours besides the six, with the SA batsmen cashing in on errors in line and length to ensure the scoring rate didn't fall behind.
At the end of 20 overs, Proteas were on 94/4; Gibbs, looking assured, batting 27/43; Mark Boucher on 1/3, with a close shout for LBW going in his favor to the second ball he faced.
With South Africa intent on wicket-conservation, the boundaries dried up during this phase.
Gibbs and Boucher, against a combination of Kumble and Pathan, looked to work the ball around, and keep the board ticking over with the obvious intent of saving wickets for the big push at the end.
Back came Agarkar (Pathan 7-0-28-0) in the 27th, and Boucher got one short enough and innocuous enough to drill through midwicket for the first four in 5.5 overs. In his next over, again off the last ball, the right arm seamer bowled too full, serving up a half volley for Gibbs to work through the midwicket region to find the fence.
42 runs came in this phase without further loss; at the end of 30 overs SA had progressed to 136/4 with Gibbs batting 46/74 and Boucher on 23/33.
For India, the risk at this point lies in this pair extending their association for another ten overs; that sets the stage for Justin Kemp to come out and provide the big impetus at the death.
Virender Sehwag took Agarkar off after a second spell of 2-0-13-0 (5-0-33-0 overall) and brought himself on at one end in the 31st over; at the other, he opted to conserve Kumble (7-0-31-2) and brought Tendulkar on, for his seam up stuff.
At that point, Zaheer had four to bowl; Sreesanth five; Pathan three and Kumble three. The worry for the Indians must have been Agarkar, going at 6-plus, with five overs to bowl.
Tendulkar switched to assorted all-sorts after one over of seam up, with the leg break predominating; he must be feeling confident of his shoulder and elbow to attempt that delivery at this early stage in a tour.
Again, the field setting served up points of interest. For his own bowling, thus, Sehwag kept mid on right up, and added a backward square leg, denying both batsmen two easy run scoring opportunities: you couldn't push with the spin on the off, nor could you play the sweep.
An increasingly fidgety Boucher, who found his pushes and sweeps being unproductive, was caught in two minds - to a delivery pushed through flat and quick, the batsman (currently ranked number eight in the world in ODIs) seemed intent on going forward, then tried to go back and whip. In the event, he missed the line and was nailed in front (29/49; SA 154/5).
Justin Kemp walked in, and squared up to Tendulkar, who reverted to seam up. The second ball of the 36th was back of length, just outside off going away fractionally; Kemp rocked back and swatted at it; Sehwag, at a close in point, gave the lie to tales of his expanding waistline, bending low to pluck the catch almost off the turf (0/1; SA 155/6).
Shaun Pollock signaled intent in the 39th, dancing down to loft Sehwag back over the bowler's head. The hit flared off the outer edge, but still carried enough heft to clear the smallish straight boundary - the first boundary hit since Sehwag and Tendulkar began bowling in tandem.
At the 40 over mark, South Africa had progressed to 176/6; Pollock batting 14/17 and Gibbs soldiering on, with 66/101.
With the frontline bowlers having overs to spare, the final 10 overs should see regulars back in operation; South Africa meanwhile needs this pair to pull off the double trick of keeping their wickets in tact, and upping the scoring rate appreciably.
Predictably, in the 41st over, Sehwag took himself off (5-0-22-1) and brought back Kumble - who hit his parsimonious length right off, giving away just one in his comeback over.
Not to second guess the captain, but you did find yourself wishing he had done the same at the other end; Tendulkar had done his job, continuing him into the death was inviting trouble - and Gibbs and Pollock accepted the invitation, with the former crashing fours in successive overs, while Pollock in the 46th came down the track to loft him over long on, a feat his partner celebrated by hammering the fifth ball of that over square on the off for a four.
At the other end, Kumble ended his spell (10-0-42-2, great returns on a wicket affording zero spin); Zaheer Khan took over in the 47th and, unlike in the previous game, hit the three quarter length and kept it there without giving batsmen anything in the driving slot.
The imperative to score runs off every ball created the pressure that led to Pollock's fall. The batsman punched a short ball, off the back foot, to mid on and took off. Kumble was quick onto the ball, the release was fast and Dhoni did well to collect on the run and break the wicket, with the batsman a good two inches short of his ground (37/43; SA 216/7).
The breakthrough came at the right time; Pollock was showing signs of being ready to free his shoulders and inflict some serious damage.
Gibbs finally shook off his self-imposed shackles, began making room and hitting through the line - but you got the feeling he had left the charge too late. At the other end, Andrew Hall clobbered Sreeshanth for a huge six over the long on fence in the final over, but off the very next ball, an attempt to pinch an extra run ended fatally as Dhoni, yet again, did well to collect a throw in from the deep and take out the stumps.
India for once did well at the death, keeping SA down to just 67 runs for a final score of 243/8 in 50.
As targets go, it is one of those tantalizing ones - not large enough to put the issue beyond doubt; not small enough to shrug off. Two factors will determine the outcome - the nature of the lights, which in any case is beyond anyone's control, and the quality of the opening partnership as India begins its reply.
One shot played during this first ten overs stands out for me.
Makhaya Ntini, nicely warmed up, had produced a searing lifter off just back of length with the first ball of the fourth over. The second was on that spot again - just short, and just wide of off.
Sehwag rocked back, flashed into the cut, and the ball banged into the boards before the fielder at deep backward point could move five yards to cut it off.
The shot stands out for two reasons: one, it was the very same stroke that cost the batsman his wicket in the previous game; the same shot he has fallen to time out of mind in recent times.
You would think, given that, Sehwag would cut it out of his repertory - or at least, wait till he was set before uncorking it again. But no, here was the shot, played without fear, first chance he got.
The other aspect was that the batsman, this time, made an effort to correct his mistakes. For one thing, he moved across to get a touch closer to the ball, to gain more control on the shot; for another, he hit it top down, as opposed to his usual cut that gets under the ball looking to hit it up.
From then on, his innings has been a mix of the agricultural and the controlled, with more of the former.
22/0 after 5 was the best start India has had all series. It was too good to last, though - in the sixth, Ntini hit the corridor, made one lift and Jaffar, circumspect till then, played at it in a parody of a square cut, but managed only to edge it for Smith at first slip to make a hard overhead catch look easy (10/20; India 23/1).
Out came Sachin Tendulkar, in an anchoring role to make up for the absence of Rahul Dravid. And out he went, yet again, to Shaun Pollock. The ball was outside off, jagging back; Tendulkar looked in two minds, first shaping to play then opting to leave.
He left it too late, though; the ball came in enough to take the bottom of the bat as the batsman was pulling out of the stroke; Boucher dived to pouch a good one almost in front of first slip (1/3; India 24/2).
Mohammad Kaif opened with a flashing back foot drive on the up off Ntini that was airborne for a dangerously long time before finding the fence ahead of the desperately diving backward point. There was nothing streaky, though, about the glide onto the front foot to the next ball, setting up a flowing, elbow-high drive through mid off for another boundary.
An over later, Ntini struck the biggest blow yet. Sehwag had, taking advantage of the lessening of the slip cordon, guided the first ball to the third man fence. One ball later, Ntini angled one in on fuller length aiming for the pads; Sehwag shaped to flick, a bread and butter shot at the best of times.
He hit it right, too - whipping the bat over the ball to angle it wide of midwicket - only, Bosman raced three steps to his right, then flung himself headlong to snaffle a ball that seemed destined for the boundary. It's the second match on the run that the young opener has taken a potentially match-winning catch; if anything, this one was better than his take off Dhoni the other day (18/22; India 38/3; SA at this stage 34/2).
Those three strikes have pretty much knocked the stuffing out of the chase; for Kaif, Karthik, Dhoni et al to pull this one will take cricket of a caliber they haven't shown all tour.
The first ten overs had produced three catches, each better than the next.
Overs 11 and 12 produced ground fielding that, if anything, raised the bar even further. Time and again, Kaif and Karthick played what looked like perfectly legitimate scoring shots, only to find Gibbs, de Villiers, Bosman and others impossible to pass.
Thanks almost entirely to fielding that was near supernatural, over number 11 produced one run; number 12 was a maiden. Something had to give - and it was Karthick's nerve.
He played Pollock out to the on side, and called what was a perfectly legitimate run. The sight of Bosman swooping towards the ball from midwicket, cutting off the angle, seemed to intimidate him, though - and he retraced his steps, almost dead-heating with his partner at the batting end while Bosman strolled over to the bowling crease, ball in hand, to complete the dismissal (10/22; India 39/4).
Pollock (8-1-29-1) and Ntini (7-1-26-2) had performed their customary demolition job at the top, reducing India to 55/4 in the first 15 overs. Even that score was attained thanks to Mahendra Singh Dhoni announcing his arrival with a drive drilled through cover, then a mistimed pull that was gloved to the fine leg boundary, off successive Pollock deliveries in the 15th over.
Andre Nel and Jacques Kallis then took over, with the former peppering Dhoni with short pitched deliveries while the latter used height and heft to make them lift along the off corridor.
Dhoni alone on this tour thus far has fought fire with flames. A crashing square cut off Kallis in the 17th over saw the bowler giving the batsman a talking to; whatever was said was inspiring enough for Dhoni to rock back and pull a short of length delivery over the head of the deep fine leg fielder for the first six of the innings.
At the other end, a chastened Karthick focused on holding his end up, nudging the ball around for singles to turn the strike over to Dhoni.
The latter seemed a man in a hurry. The 4th ball of the 20th was flashed off the thick edge down to third man for four; the 5th ball, from Andre Nel, was a lifter outside off and Dhoni, both feet in the air, looked to upper cut it over the fence but didn't get enough wood into the shot. Ashwell Prince, positioned at wide third man for just such a shot, did well to come forward and pluck the catch as it was dying on him (26/21; India 82/5).
At the 20 over mark, India with 83/5 was staring down a very wide barrel; Karthick has for company an off form Pathan, followed by the tail, and SA look good to wrap up the series with one still left to play.
Tell you what - that meeting of the national selectors in New Delhi tomorrow? I find myself wishing I could be a fly on that particular wall - be interesting to see what the selectors have to say about each of the players, as they debate their merits.
Irfan Pathan began with a streaky edge off Andre Nel, which bounced the ball over the stumps, dangerously close to the bails, and down to the fine leg fence.
But then, in the next Kallis over, he uncorked a shot he hasn't managed to play in a long long time - the caressed drive through the covers that, when he was batting at his best, was a signature shot. That was followed up by the straightest of drives.
Nel tested the batsman out with a couple of bouncers in his next over and Pathan, in his turn, produced another cover drive - only, this was hit up from under, lofting the ball over the extra cover fence and into the spectators. He was to repeat the shot, with even greater control, in the 28th over when Andre Nel went around the wicket and tried to angle the ball onto off from wide of the crease.
Kallis, at the other end, appeared to be losing his sense of self-possession; there was some chatter with Pathan in between those two fours. Graeme Smith took him off and brought on Justin Kemp (Andrew Hall, the fifth of the regular bowlers, had been off the field for some unspecified reason, with Ashwell Prince substituting); the first ball was a warm-up outside off and Dinesh Karthick, who till then had been patience personified, got under it and sliced the attempted drive down the throat of Andre Nel at deep and wide third man (17/38; India 109/5).
Shortly after Pathan cracked Nel over the ropes in the 28th, the bowler produced the ball of the match - a scorching, screaming bouncer that Pathan knew nothing about. A reflexive push with the bat, more by way of self defense than batsmanship, put the ball up in the air; Herschelle Gibbs ran in from point almost to silly point, ending with a headlong dive that almost, but not quite, produced a catch out of thin air.
It's been said before; it bears repeating - the fielding standards this team has set, on this tour thus far, rivals the magic the fielding side led by Jonty Rhodes had routinely created.
Even the most ordinary of fielders would have had no problem taking Agarkar out. To Justin Kemp bowling nothing more than line and length, Agarkar played what you could only describe as a forehand smash, hitting the ball from outside off to the sweeper in a deep extra cover position; Andrew Hall barely moved to complete the take (6/14; 128/7).
At the end of 30 overs, India had 140 on the board to SA's 136 at the same stage - the difference lay in the wickets column, with India 7 down to the four SA had lost at the 30 over mark.
Zaheer Khan seemed for a brief while to be batting within himself; his resistance however ended shortly after the dew-drenched ball was replaced with a harder one.
Kallis bowled one in the channel; Khan drove at it without moving his feet and Boucher held the relatively simple edge (11/12; India 145/8).
Anil Kumble, in his turn, blocked a few, pushed at a few, and finally got a lifter from Shaun Pollock, brought back to clean the innings up, that he knew nothing about. The tailender fended at it, the ball flew off the splice to slip and Smith was his usual competent self at first slip (2/14; India 150/9).
Sreesanth almost went first ball, swatting at one outside his off; Jacques Kallis dived forward, but just couldn't cling on to the chance - the first half chance going down, in three games, from this South African outfit.
The game ended in predictable fashion - Justin Kemp came back, banged one down, and Sreesanth clubbed it straight to cover, then stood there reluctant to go off the park.
Even more reluctant was Irfan Pathan, on a day when he batted himself back into an approximation of his best form. He was the only batsman, on a wicket that really held no surprises, to come consistently onto the front foot and look to hit the ball in front of him; not coincidentally, he was the only one to remain untroubled throughout his innings.
South Africa had the game wrapped up by 80 runs, and the series wrapped up 3-0. And as at Newlands, so too here, you were left with a bad taste in the mouth - not the taste of defeat, but of capitulation without semblance of a fight.
Personally, I am no fan of the sort of `fan' who goes stoning the homes of players (or even of media outlets that make a big thing of having covered the vandalism `live'); that said, the anger of the fan is understandable in context of the lack of fight the team has shown to date on this tour.
Too many players have gotten out in ways that spell `can't be bothered'; against that, the most consistent performer has been a player who was dropped for form and attitudinal problems both, spent a long while in the wilderness working out his problems in the tough grind of English county cricket, and has now come back with hunger recharged.
Perhaps there is, in the story of Zaheer Khan, a message - for the players, the coach, the selectors, and for us all.