After struggling with the ball for a greater part in the series, Team India are now facing a middle-order crisis against a confident South African brigade who are just one game away from winning the One-Day International (ODI) series.
Following a 0-2 T20 series loss, the Indian team made crucial changes in their tumultuous batting-order. Ajinkya Rahane was introduced at number three, Virat Kohli pushed to number four and MS Dhoni backed himself at number five. The gamble, understandably, didn't click right away, but the arrival of Rahane up in the order provided the much-needed stability nonetheless.
Riding on Dhoni's heroics in the 2nd ODI, India managed to pull one back and level the series 1-1 against the Proteas. But, despite restricting the opposition to a moderate total in the 3rd ODI, India paid dearly for making the changes in their batting-order and eventually fell short 18 runs in the end.
Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan gave India a steady start while Kohli and Dhoni kept them in the hunt, but there was no one to finish the game as Morne Morkel ripped through the Indian batting-order. India's experiment with the batting line-up has affected the performances of the batsmen and the team alike. With just two games left in the series, India need to find the perfect mix to script a great escape from yet another series defeat.
Here's a look at five reasons why the Indian cricket team is struggling against the Proteas in their own backyards:
For a batsman who has made a name for himself by setting up the games for his side, Virat Kohli has failed miserably to help India's cause in the past few months. The right-handed batsmen, who was once considered a run-machine for the 'Men in Blue', has struggled to score runs, especially in the ODI format. Barring his 99-ball 77 at Rajkot, the Delhi lad has amassed 270 runs at an average of just 27 in his last 12 ODI innings, with a highest score of 46 runs.
Ever since his ODI debut in 2008, Kohli had never gone more than seven innings without scoring a fifty. The last time Kohli scored above fifty, other than his innings at Rajkot, was against Pakistan during the World Cup in February, earlier this year. Even in the 3rd ODI against South Africa, Kohli's slow-paced innings did gave the fans something to cheer for but the right-hander failed to get his team over the line. Kohli's dip in form has visibly affected the Indian batting which is currently all at sea against a rampaging South African brigade.
India's top-order batsman Rohit Sharma is amongst the few batsmen in modern-day cricket who can be elegant while tearing the opposition apart with exquisite stroke-play. However, for a player of his class, his recent endeavours in ODI cricket have been frustrating for him, the team, and the spectators; the odd delightful innings is generally followed and preceded by plenty of failures with the bat.
Out of his last six ODI innings at home, Rohit Sharma has been dismissed at single-digit scores on three occasions. In his other two innings, Sharma scored a blistering 264,150, and 65 respectively. In the five games against South Africa so far in the series, Sharma has scored 106, 22, 150, 3, and 65. It's the inconsistency of the Mumbai batsman that has come back to haunt the Indian brigade time and time again.
Indian captain MS Dhoni's reliance on premier spinner Ravichandran Ashwin is no longer a surprise, especially in home conditions. With the seamers being hammered away by the South African batsmen, Dhoni has always looked to Ashwin to turn the tide for his team. However, the over-dependence on Ashwin seems to have added to India's misery. His absence was dearly missed in the 1st ODI at Kanpur when he sustained a side-strain injury during the game that led to a five-run defeat for India.
With Ashwin ruled out of the ODI series, Dhoni has been making amends with Harbhajan Singh, Amit Mishra and Axar Patel. However, none of the spinners have been able to make an impact in the series so far. Harbhajan is no longer threatening, Axar is far too expensive and Mishra is inconsistent in picking up wickets. If India intend to stay alive, let alone win the series, the spinners will have to step up their game.
Ever since their ouster from the 2015 World Cup, India have lost one ODI and a T20 series under the leadership of MS Dhoni. Apart from a few questionable decisions in the series against South Africa, Dhoni has also been struggling with the willow. After being heavily criticised, Dhoni did answer his critics with a gritty knock of 92 runs that led India to an emphatic win in the 2nd ODI.
However, in the 3rd ODI at Rajkot, Dhoni's decision to tweak the batting-order played a key role in India's defeat. After promoting himself to number 4 slot, Dhoni did score a crucial 47 runs but the Indian captain failed to see India home, yet again. Not many would argue his decision to promote himself at number 4, but the Indian captain could have stuck to the same batting-order they used in the 2nd ODI.
The fact that Ajinkya Rahane scored back-to-back fifties after being promoted to the number three slot makes the case more compelling. Given the recent batting struggles of Virat Kohli, Dhoni's decision to use him at number three is understandable. But, Rahane at number six is a disastrous call. Dhoni needs to get his mojo back if India aspire to turn the tables on the South Africans.
Before the series against South Africa began, a lot of questions were raised on the mediocre bowling lineup of Team India. However, given the performances of the Indian batsmen so far, it seems like the bowlers are doing a pretty decent job, if not exceptionally well. The middle-order, in particular, has failed the hosts and amongst other batsmen, Suresh Raina has been one of the major disappointments for the MS Dhoni side.
The left-handed batsman has missed out with the bat with shambolic individual scores of 14, 22 ,3, 0, and 0 in the five games against the Proteas in the series so far. Raina's failure to provide the much-needed acceleration to stabilise the innings in the crucial overs has hurt India who've found themselves trailing 1-2 in the ongoing five-match ODI series following a recent 0-2 loss in the T20s.