There are no dead rubbers in Test cricket as the edge-of-the-seat thriller at the Wanderers so comprehensively proved. The series may have been lost earlier, but victory in the final Test went a long way in restoring India’s battered reputation.
Make no mistake, the 63-run win on a minefield of a pitch that put both life and limb in danger will rank as one of India’s finest wins abroad, alongside Port of Spain and the Oval in 1971, Melbourne in 1981, Perth in 2008 and Lord’s in 2014.
Virat Kohli’s men not only walked away from the series with their heads held high but also ensured that India retained the ICC’s Test mace with a few months to spare before the April cut-off date.
It’s a pity the BCCI chose to cancel one match from the originally scheduled four-Test series to accommodate a needless tour by Sri Lanka late last year.
Imagine the anticipation and excitement a fourth Test would have created with Kohli’s buoyant side attempting a series-levelling win. Three magnificent Tests only whetted the appetite for more.
But once the dusk settles on the celebrations, Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri will realise the 2-1 result could have been in India’s favour rather than the Proteas.
India let slip the opportunities that came their way at both Cape Town and Centurion due to brittle batting, poor catching and wayward bowling just when South Africa were struggling to breathe easy.
Both times, South Africa broke free from India’s clutches and won the important moments to clinch the series. It was only at Johannesburg that the Proteas found the sustained pressure from the tourists too hot to handle.
With tours of England and Australia to follow later in the year, India can take away a lot of positives from the series — but several lessons too would have been learnt as well.
When the selectors pick the squad for England, the first three names on the list would easily be Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
Kohli’s lofty standards rose a few notches in the series, his 153 at the Centurion and two high class knocks on the devilish Wanderers pitch enhancing his reputation as one of the finest batsmen in the modern game.
Tactical errors in team selection raised questions about his captaincy skills but, as Kohli himself admitted, he was learning all the time and the lessons would hold him in good stead.
Rahane, a surprise omission for the first two Tests, showed why he is rated among the most dependable batsmen overseas when he made a skillful– and I dare say a match-winning — 48 in the second innings at the Wanderers.
Kumar being dropped for the second Test after taking six wickets in the first was a decision that will confound experts for a long time. But he returned for the third Test to let the team management know that he was the all-rounder India badly needs.
Hardik Pandya flattered to deceive and left many wondering if he was ready for Test cricket. He clearly needs to work on his all-round skills if he is to make a name for himself at the top level.
That South Africa were dismissed in all six innings is not only an indication of how well India’s bowlers performed, but also a warning to rivals that preparing seamer-friendly pitches could prove to be counter-productive.
Jasprit Bumrah was the find of the tour, a lethal force with the new ball, but India will be concerned about the performance of its top-order batsmen, especially the usually reliable Cheteshwar Pujara.
India will need both the batsmen and bowlers to click together if they are to do well in England and Australia.