So the weirdness of Messrs Amla, de Villiers and du Plessis batting back hit-me balls in a vain attempt to block their way to Dutch-boy-and-the-dyke glory ended predictably, in disaster, at Delhi.
If you were a South African supporter, you could blame Mohali and Nagpur on underprepared pitches, an Indian tactic which wiseacres as far afield as Michael Vaughan took to Twitter to criticise. But the danger signals should really have gone up after the one day of cricket possible in the second Test at Bengaluru, in which the Proteas were rolled over in short order on a good batting track.
That match was ruined by rain, but here were the first signs of the mental disintegration that would manifest most jarringly in the second innings at Delhi and underlie the South African trio’s refusal even to take the most reasonable risk.
Just as the normality of Bengaluru followed the mayhem of Mohali, a perfectly good track followed the Nagpur snakepit, and the South African response was predictable. Ordinary deliveries were sniffed at suspiciously and Jadeja’s darts were viewed as hand grenades. In a mind game like cricket, once mental poise begins to go, it goes very quickly.
After India recovered superbly in the first innings, South Africa were pushed aside, making less than Ajinkya Rahane did in the hosts’ first innings. Another special from the Mumbai batsman allowed a muscular Indian second innings. And then came the weirdness of Amla, De Villiers and Du Plessis, the Proteas’ equivalent of India’s Fab Four, but each battling his own demons. Amla, a shadow of the player who had taken the Indians for a 250 on the 2010 tour; de Villiers, let down more than once in the series by a brittle compulsion to attack; and du Plessis, struggling to buy a run after the one-day series ended.
Accordingly, South Africa batted 143.1 overs for 143, a go-slow that was a batting equivalent of Ashley Giles bowling wide outside the legstump to Tendulkar all those years ago, but one which achieved nothing in the end. By all accounts, the wicket played reasonably well until the finish; perhaps the turn even slowed, making batting easier. Despite this, South Africa decided not to score, always a recipe for disaster. Blame Bengaluru on Mohali, and Delhi on Nagpur.
Fear of spin is arguably worse than fear of pace; it appears to do strange things with the best of batsmen. What to say of lesser types like Richard Blakey, whose petrified expression while facing Anil Kumble way back in 1993 is still etched in the mind; a mesmerised mouse waiting to become a cobra’s snack. No one is comparing de Villiers with Blakey, but by the end of a 72-day tour, the world’s best batsman was looking well out of it all, his desire to dominate replaced by a miserable fixation with smothering the spin.
Indeed there was always a strong sense of the Proteas wanting to be somewhere else, ideally back home. They could have gone there with one final yahoo; instead they disappeared with a whimper.