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INDIA VS SOUTH AFRICA:

The onus is on skipper Virat Kohli to lift the morale of the dejected team and exhort them for one final push.

How long are eight days? Long enough to open the old wounds, send all talks of revenge to the nearest trash-can, and leave the top-ranked Test team hanging by the precipice, clutching what remains of the invisible pride.

Pride. It’s a wonderful word; easy on ears, lyrical on tongue. It has gravitas and depth. It is known to trigger redemption, retribution, and resurgence (Perth 2008, anyone?). It’s also pretty much everything that this Virat Kohli-led Indian team has not been on this trip. And yet, it happens to be the only thing they are left to play for, and possibly, with.

Amid all the hustle about team combinations and debates around what-ifs, the chest-thumping bravado of a side that has won each of its last nine Test series is suddenly a distant memory. Lest we forget, it’s the same team that ended South Africa’s nine-year unbeaten run away from home on made-to-order tracks in 2015, and not long ago, was a well-oiled machinery that powered away without a glitch. But what a difference has eight days of cricket in South Africa made.

There were signs of snags — Rajkot in 2016 (where England gave them a mighty scare in last session of the day), Pune in 2017 (where they were beaten at their own game by a sublime second innings ton by Steve Smith), and Bengaluru in 2017 (where KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane’s fifties in the second innings saved them), but by and large, things looked fine. Add to it, the general euphoria around the ego-boosting mauling of Sri Lanka — though Kolkata Test once again bared India’s storied weaknesses against seam and swing — and the stage looked set for a date with history.

So when Kohli arrived on South African shores with a reputation to preserve and a promise to fulfill, one thought he had the arsenal to last the long haul. But call it the result of succumbing to one’s own hype, or the sheer lack of skill, the team has revealed cracks that the successful home run over the course of two seasons had delicately glossed over.

From opening combinations to middle-order’s ineptitude to wicket-keeping to catching, the team’s vulnerabilities have been ruthlessly exposed. Couple this with Kohli’s arcane choices of playing XIs, and we have a situation where the team is left pondering over what could have been.

It might not be too far-fetched to conclude that besides being short of confidence, the squad is also an insecure lot; not knowing who would get the axe and on what basis. No amount of pep-talk, back channel banter or words of wisdom can replace the confidence that a player gets by simply getting picked up in the XI, and one fears if Kohli’s Claudio Ranieri-style tinkerman tactics may end up doing more harm than good.

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