When was this tour game vs South Africa A really over? Was it when the South Africans were 116 for 6, Anil Kumble, in his comeback international game, was looming large and on the verge of a hat-trick and then India let it go from there?
Or was it when the Indians, in turn, allowed themselves to be then dominated by a flamboyant, pulsating partnership of 96 off 102 balls between the little known Albie Morkel and the more familiar Jacques Rudolph?
Or was it when the 5000-odd locals who made the trip to the Willomoore Park, were treated to a sight familiar for those following Indian cricket of late — another astonishing batting collapse?
It should have been a carnival of cricket when the Indians came out to bat. A bright, sunshiny day had gently moved into a clear, breezy evening. As the lights came on, the party began in the grassy knolls that surrounded half the ground. Indian and South African flags happily jostled for space and attention with the dozens of mini-picnics on and excited kids running all over the place.
The vans parked above the hillocks were doing brisk business, the smell of fries and frankfurters was in the air and a man named Dale Steyn, who the Indians would know better as the evening progressed, was busy indulging youngsters by picking up bats and books thrown at him and good-naturedly signing them.
The beer was flowing and the music was growing on you, the street party was well and truly in place. People were guessing which song would come up next (as the Indians batted on, it mostly moved between that ubiquitous Queen anthem “Another one bites the dust”, Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic “I will survive” and interestingly, the Bollywood number “Just chill, chill”).
Unfortunately, atmosphere is never quite enough, the action on the stage has to match up to it and that didn’t happen, not from an Indian point of view. Given how they bowled in the final stages of the SA A innings and the absolutely shoddy fielding display they put up, some might be tempted to use that familiar cricketing adage, “They can’t bat, they can’t bowl, they can’t field”.
However, that would be too harsh. This is only the first tour game and tour games have so often proved to be no indicator of what lies ahead. India could (and yes, this might be wishful thinking) come back and do something special in the series, after all, there is a surplus of talent when you look quite closely and view the world with rose-tinted glasses!
Plus, there is history. Remember, that famed statement was proved wrong when England, the team it was then meant for (but of course!), won the Ashes. So hopefully, there is hope. On a more serious note though, it would help if India’s struggling bats took some inspiration from how their skipper came out and batted.
Rahul Dravid has not had a good season, in fact, before the Champions Trophy began, he was rock bottom in the batting averages of India's top seven regular batsmen, having 96 runs in the 10 games or so from the beginning of the West Indies tour.
But during that blighted Trophy dream that never was, he still managed to pull himself together somewhat, even while coping with the massive pressure of leading an Indian team that is trying to prove to an increasingly disbelieving world that it has what it takes.
And on Thursday night at Willowmoore, he did just that again, playing a virtual lone hand in ensuring that even if India were embarrassed, at least they were not made to like complete no-hopers!
In Dravid’s innings of 79 (he was the ninth wicket to fall, playing on to become Steyn’s fifth) there was his trademark caution (he started slowly and picked up his singles), some rare aggression (his three sixes, one over mid on and one a slightly widish long on and a third swept-slashed over square leg) and some barely-contained anger (the almost banging his bat into the ground before stopping when Pathan’s dismissal for 34 signalled the end of a positive 84-run seventh wicket stand).
What can you say of the others? It was a Steyn show almost all the way. Early on, Tendulkar slashed Steyn to point and sent the crowd into a momentary hush, two balls later, Jaffer poked an awaygoing delivery from him to slips.
Later, Dhoni walked across to him and was given out, and again, two balls later, Raina tried to fend off a snorter and only succeeded in finding short leg. Finally, Dravid played on. In between, Kaif (30) and Pathan (34) stood around with him for a bit but it would never be enough.
Still, the tour has just begun.
Brief scores: South Africa A 255 for 8 (Petersen 38, Prince 31, Rudolph not out 72, Morkel 57, Zaheer 3 for 43, Kumble 2 for 31). Indians 218 (Kaif 30, Dravid 79, Pathan 34, Steyn 5 for 22, Thomas 2 for 44).