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India vs South Africa: An inch gives South Africa foot in the door

The pace was much slower, and the ball given much more air than the previous ones. David Miller swung across the line and had his middle stump knocked back. It was a beautiful piece of leg-spin bowling and could have been the series-clinching delivery, only if Yuzvendra Chahal had managed to keep his foot behind the front line.

He hadn’t. Miller was on seven then and had already been dropped by Shreyas Iyer on the leg-side boundary earlier in the over. Chahal had been taken to the cleaners by AB de Villiers in his previous over, which went for 17 runs. But after Hardik Pandya had accounted for the returning Protea superstar, Chahal and partner-in-crime Kuldeep Yadav were expected to run through the rest of the batting. If only…

Miller’s ouster at that juncture would have reduced the hosts to 106/5, needing 96 off 60 balls in a target recalibrated according to the Duckworth-Lewis System, with all their specialist batsmen back in the pavilion.

As it turned out Miller and the previously little-known Heinrich Klaaasen kept South Africa alive in the six-match series with a 72-run fifth-wicket stand off just 41 balls, and a chase that looked to be doomed at one stage was completed with 15 balls to spare.

“We did not grab our chances. You have to take your chances in this game, no balls are a fine line as well. We did not deserve to win,” skipper Virat Kohli said after the match. “No balls are always something that hurts you as a team but you can’t be too hard on the boys. They try their best out there in the middle and mistakes do happen.”

Klaasen is considered a big hitter in South African domestic cricket, but his debut ODI three days ago in Cape Town saw him potter around for a 12-ball 6 batting at No.4. The 27-ball 43 came out of left field and took the Indians completely by surprise.

Innovative strokeplay
Two strokes, when the pressure was highest, sum up the 26-year-old’s prowess with the bat. He seemed to have decided to hit Chahal to the leg-side beforehand regardless of the merits of the delivery. The wiry spinner seemed to have read the batsman’s intentions and bowled a leg-break wide of the off-stump which, after turning, moved almost outside the cut strip.

But Klaasen showed his stubborn streak and followed the ball’s path with his feet. When he did manage to make contact and send the ball to the square-leg boundary, he had done a 180 degree pirouette and MS Dhoni behind the stumps was in danger of decapitation by the flailing bat. Even Kohli, who perennially sports a scowl on the field, had to smile at Klaasen’s audacity.

The second example of his strokeplay was more copybook in nature. When Yadav bowled one around the off-stump, Klaasen showed he could pick which way the ball was turning. He rocked back to hit the wrong ‘un over cover with a straight bat.

With Miller’s eventual dismissal — ironically to Chahal himself — for a 28-ball 39, India might have sensed a chance. But Andile Phehlukwayo, promoted instead of the more pedigreed Chris Morris hit three sixes and a four in a five-ball 23 to avoid any late drama, as Kohli kept trusting his spinners to get the breakthroughs.

Momentum lost
South Africa were chasing nothing more than 202 in 28 overs in a game that saw two interruptions, as the Indian batting, barring Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan, doesn’t inspire great confidence. After Rohit Sharma fell habitually early in another failure in the Rainbow Nation, the second-wicket stand of 158 suggested a final total of around 325.

Dhawan alternated between some sublime strokeplay and some edgy shots, but did well enough to reach a hundred in his 100th ODI. But it was Kohli’s innings that showed the versatility of the Indian captain. While he had hardly hit a ball in the air till very late in his 160 at Cape Town, he frequently took the aerial route at the Wanderers when the Proteas tried to prevent him from rotating strike freely.

When he fell for an 83-ball 75, India seemed well placed to cross 300 with ease. But a lightning break of 50-odd minutes, which did not reduce any overs, hit India’s momentum hard as regular wickets and some tight bowling brought the hosts back in the game. Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer and Hardik Pandya didn’t contribute much and it was left to Dhoni to get India to 289/7 in 50 overs.

Decision at toss backfires
There was always a prediction for weather interruptions, and reduced games almost always favour the chasing team. But Kohli still decided to bat first on winning the toss, when his own prowess at chasing big totals is the stuff of legends.

A second break during the Proteas’ innings handcuffed Kohli as Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah had two overs maximum left and the spinners, who had tied the hosts at sixes and sevens, had much less room to work with and a wet ball to contend with.

The South Africans weren’t complaining. The curtailed game allowed them to express themselves freely and go after the bowling, an approach they may take into the remaining two games of the series. They may also consider changing their regular strip to pink after they went 6-0 in ODIs used to generate money for breast cancer awareness.

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