It will be redemption time for Mahendra Singh Dhoni's men at the Super Sport Park after two embarrassing losses in the first two matches which also exposed the famed batting line-up's inability to cope with pace and bounce of the South African tracks.
India suffered a 141-run rout in the first ODI at Wanderers and then another 136-run defeat in the second ODI at Kingsmead. A contest that started with questions about the visitors' bowling line-up has turned into an uncomfortable one about their young batting order.
That aptly describes India's journey from Johannesburg to Durban, and back. In the first ODI, a poor bowling performance was enough to absolve the batsmen of not standing up to some superb South African bowling. In the second ODI, those excuses vaporized, given that the pitch was considerably slower. Yet the results were alarmingly similar.
While the 359-run chase was never on, 281 was a more probable target. Dale Steyn's opening spell in both the ODIs left India in the lurch, and by the time he finished his first five overs on each occasion, the contests were as good as over. It highlights the fire in Steyn's belly at the moment, and his desire to do well against a batting line-up that until now was riding high on confidence and self-belief. That bit has now been wiped clear by some sensational fast bowling. It also reflects on how top-heavy this Indian batting has become.
Ahead of the series, it was a celebratory fact that Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, each of them had a thousand runs in ODIs this calendar year.
Two matches later, it becomes clear that the onus of run-scoring now clearly rests on their shoulders alone (with Dhoni as a floater in the latter half of the innings "depending on situations", as put by vice-captain Virat Kohli). There will be intense pressure on the Indian team considering they have to bear the brunt of the best pacer in world cricket up front as well as hinge the non-performing middle-order batsmen from the rest of a finely assembled bowling attack. They have failed so far and India duly conceded the series.
Skipper Dhoni admitted pretty much the same after the last defeat. The wretched form of Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh has also been a cause of concern for the skipper. They didn't come to the tour with a particularly good recent record. Both their individual averages, in the nine ODIs against Australia and West Indies at home, hovered around the 20-mark. The team management experimented with the No 4 slot in the Australia series, interchanging their batting positions which might have affected Yuvraj's form.
However there can't be excuses for a highest score of 12 in the six matches against Australia. Back at number four against the West Indies, Yuvraj did contribute a vital 55 runs in the series-decider at Kanpur. Yet the difference between sub-continental and South African conditions was clearly visible in his two-ball stay in the first ODI at the Wanderers.
One of the biggest arguments in favour of Raina and Yuvraj is their ability to bowl part-time spinners particularly in sub-continental conditions when flat wickets at home leave even a five-pronged attach toothless. Even in the second ODI, wherein the Indian bowling attack bounced back from their pedestrian display at Johannesburg and restricted the Proteas to just 280 runs, the nine overs bowled by Raina and Virat Kohli proved vital in the greater scheme of things. While it is vital not to concede 300-plus runs in every match, it is also important to build a stable batting line-up that can chase successfully irrespective of the conditions.
Skipper Dhoni had ruled out large-scale changes to the side for the third one-dayer and proclaimed the 'need to play a consistent, best-available' line-up. Does that imply Ajinkya Rahane ahead of Yuvraj, despite a failure to grab his chance at Durban in getting out to a poor shot, or indeed a try-out for waiting-in-the-wings Ambati Rayudu? It needs to be pointed out that neither of them is a particularly useful part-time bowler.
Talking of bowlers, if there has been one particular positive of this tour, it has been the learning curve of Mohammad Shami. Shami's pace allowed him to use the Wanderers pitch to good effect and he just carried that on to Kingsmead, picking up six wickets against an in-form batting line-up. "It is very crucial to hit the right lengths, with the new and old ball, and Shami has done both," Dhoni had said, after the second ODI, about his best bowler so far.
Given the Men in Blue's lean resources in the bowling department, it is unlikely that Shami will be given a break in the third ODI at Centurion. As far as the South Africans are concerned, having exposed the top-ranked ODI side in alien conditions, it will be well deserved should they choose to alter their line-up for this final limited-overs game of their calendar year.
It has been hinted that Jacques Kallis and Steyn might be given a break, giving a partly new-look to their XI at Centurion. If that is the case, will the Indian batting line-up regale in the absence of Steyn and gain some confidence going into the Test leg of the tour? That remains to be seen.
India: MS Dhoni (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra, Ambati Rayudu, Ajinkya Rahane.
South Africa: AB de Villiers (capt), Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy, Imran Tahir, Jacques Kallis, Ryan McLaren, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Vernon Philander, Graeme Smith, Dale Steyn, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
Match starts: 1700 IST.
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