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What South Africa Learnt From Playing Incredible, Intimidating India

South Africa were 52 for 5 when the floodlights turned off at Eden Gardens and thousands of mobile-phone torchlights came on. Vande Mataram played on the loudspeaker and 58,000 people sang like nobody was watching. David Miller and Marco Jansen might have wished they were being given an early reprieve and saved from the ignominy of their biggest defeat in ODIs, but they would have soon realised what was going on was not about them at all. This was India’s show in every way.

The laser demonstration – in lieu of 70,000 Virat Kohli masks and a birthday cake – was a celebration of the player who fulfilled his destiny at Eden Gardens and whose every move was being watched by everybody. Earlier in the day, for three hours and 15 minutes, South Africa had had a first-hand view themselves. They saw how Kohli crafted his 49th ODI century and had the time to rue the way they started their toughest league-stage test.

In India’s first powerplay, South Africa gave away more runs than they managed to score in their whole innings. If there’s one statistic that captures the mismatch, that has to be it.

Before we criticise the new-ball approach, we have to remember the personnel being scrutinised, particularly Jansen, who leaked the most runs and also is the least experienced. He came into this game as the joint-third highest wicket-taker in the tournament and the most successful powerplay bowler. He also came into it having told media two days ago that he was “very nervous”, that a usual by-product of that anxiety is to overthink, and that he was going to spend some time with his father to help him stay calm before he took the new ball at Eden Gardens.

Those two things should tell us that Jansen is a skilled operator who has the ability to perform at this level and had an off day, something every cricketer can have. They should also allow us to recognise the humanity of the situation: he is a young cricketer – only 23 – under the most severe spotlight of his career… and he fell apart. He bowled wide down leg, sprayed it well outside off, could not find any consistency in his lengths and his first four overs cost 43 runs. Is it something to be concerned about?

In a rehearsal for dealing with pressure, and chasing against India's ace bowling unit, South Africa fell well short

In a rehearsal for dealing with pressure, and chasing against India’s ace bowling unit, South Africa fell well short•ICC via Getty Images

“It’s a gift,” South Africa’s coach Rob Walter said afterwards. “Being able to run out in front of 75,000 (the official attendance was 58,000) in a game like today, there are so many learning opportunities out there. It was just an opportunity to play against a really good team and he struggled today but he’s got the skillset to bounce back and be effective the next time around. What he does have now is the value of having already run out, competed, and felt what it’s like to be in a cauldron with 70,000 people cheering against you. And to have that as experience is invaluable. You can’t get that anywhere else but here.”

To some degree that applies to everyone in the set-up, who would never have experienced anything close to the atmosphere they were thrust into. Playing against India in India is intimidating enough, playing against them at Eden Gardens, on Kohli’s birthday which happens to be the same day he equalled Sachin Tendulkar’s record of ODI centuries is next level. No matter how prepared any opposition is, the intensity of being in front of an Indian crowd, almost all of whom are against you and obsessively for one other player, demands something more than talent, technique or even temperament. It is about understanding how to manage the expectations and emotions that come with the occasion. That is where they really slipped up.

South Africa knew there was a narrative brewing beyond the match; a story about the top two teams being pitted against each other at the venue where they both have history and a hope that a World Cup which has had too many one-sided contests would produce a nail-biter. They also know that they did not live up to that billing and immediately owned that. “If you walk into that changing room now, you’re going to find a group of guys highly disappointed that we weren’t able to pay tribute to what was an awesome occasion and a great opportunity for us to showcase our skill,” Walter said. “We played so well throughout this entire World Cup and we would have wanted nothing more than this to be a great contest.”

That much was clear from the build-up, during which South Africa appeared focused but not fussed by meeting India at this stage of the competition given there wasn’t much on the line. Thanks to Pakistan’s win over New Zealand on Saturday, South Africa’s semi-final spot was confirmed and this match was a free-hit and a dress rehearsal in how to deal with a) pressure, b) chasing and c) a team who are in better form than they are. On all counts, South Africa fell short.

They might be able to take some consolation that they read conditions well and picked a second specialist spinner in anticipation of a surface which would turn, and it did. But there was no more reward as Tabraiz Shamsi went for 72 runs, though he could have dismissed Kohli with his second ball had Quinton de Kock taken a chance that required lightning-quick reaction. After that, Shamsi could not maintain the pressure created by Keshav Maharaj at the other end. Again, it’s a metaphor for the performance as a whole because South Africa had some moments but had to respond with far more urgency to make them count.

So what can they take from a match in which they were completely outplayed other than the experience of being spectators at someone else’s party? Maybe that they have now seen the tournament favourites, and all the fanfare they generate, up close and so they will have a better idea of how to play against them next time.

“They’re a hell of a team. And very well balanced and highly skilled,” Walter said. “You have to believe that on a day if you execute your skills, you’ve also got a chance. The beauty of it is that there may well be another shot for us and we’ve been given an opportunity to learn from that.”

If these two sides meet again (which could be the final, if South Africa don’t slip to fourth), it will be another massive event at an even bigger stadium with even more fervent home-team support. South Africa have four days before their final league match against Afghanistan in Ahmedabad on Friday, which they will hope could act as a dress rehearsal of another kind for them, of where they want to end up on November 19.

Source : ESPN Cricinfo