India's 130-run victory over South Africa on Sunday was easily the most emphatic in this edition of the World Cup yet. Who would have thought that the match would be so one-sided?
But while statistics flatter India, it is the manner in which the victory was achieved that was even more remarkable. The pressure on India in this match was no less than when they played Pakistan, though in a dramatically different sort of way.
In both contests, Dhoni's team coped brilliantly. If anything, where the quality of cricket is concerned, India played far better on Sunday than against Pakistan a week earlier. South Africa, remember, were billed as the favourite for winning the title this time, but ended up being roundly clobbered by India.
When the World Cup began, India were struggling to get their combination right, had suffered setbacks in Tests and in the tri-series Down Under and the chances of retaining the title won in 2011 were generally being disregarded, if not ridiculed.
In the span of just eight days, several things have already gone topsy-turvy in the tournament. England and Pakistan are languishing, West Indies and Sri Lanka are hanging in there by a slender thread and all these teams are under threat also from the minnows.
Of course, New Zealand and Australia have played strongly, making the best use of familiar ground and weather conditions, but it is India's rise from the doldrums that is now the talking point of the tournament. In all three departments--batting, bowling and fielding--there has been a dramatic improvement from even 3-4 weeks ago.
But the biggest gain has been the ability to not just absorb pressure, but to use this pressure to raise the level of performance. On Sunday, for instance, India were several notches higher in intensity and skills than in the match against Pakistan.
Contrast this with South Africa's struggle to beat Zimbabwe, and then the utter rout against India on Sunday. For a team on whom the bookies offered the shortest odds and most experts reckon had the all-round depth to win the World Cup, they were surprisingly lacklustre. Or is that no surprise at all, considering their track record? Is the dreaded C word then still applicable to them?
I would be chary of denouncing South Africa as 'Chokers' already. This side has outstanding talent. And let's not forget that there are still many games remaining in the tournament. In fact, the 'real' World Cup begins with the quarter-finals. But what Sunday's match did show is that they are susceptible under pressure.
This was evident in their poor bowling, the ill-planned batting tactics. It was almost as if the Proteas wanted to win through bluster and intimidation, not through a contest of skills.
The mediocrity of their performance was perhaps most pronounced by errors in the field. To see South Africans drop three catches in a match is among the rarest of rare sights. Add to that two run outs--skipper A B de Villiers and David Miller, no less--and the extent to which their nerves were frayed is evident.
The nervousness was not caused by some supernatural power; rather by a superb and aggressive display by India. Barring Rohit Sharma's early run out, the Indian team was always on top.
In the entire day, there might have been only 20-25 minutes of play when the South Africans had the better of the exchanges. That shows the extent of India's domination and finds true expression in the margin of victory.
So what further benefits have accrued to India from this win?
a) Uppermost, the boost to self-belief. Beating the tournament favourites tells the team something about itself. The mood from here on will be bouyant.
b) Shikhar Dhawan's return to smashing form. In-form openers can cause the greatest damage in limited-overs cricket. Against Pakistan, he scored a useful half-century but still seemed a trifle unsure of whether to defend or attack. On Sunday, there was no vestige of self-doubt. He tamed the dreaded attack, then plundered runs at will.
c) The top order is in crackling form. Kohli played a crucial role in steadying the innings after Rohit's early fall. If Raina didn't get going today, Rahane did: with the same gusto, which shows that there is a fine understanding of what is expected from the batsmen collectively. I think the target is 300-plus every time. Runs from Rohit and Dhoni would be welcome, but neither has looked in poor form and this could be just a matter of time.
d) The pace bowlers were sharp and incisive as against Pakistan, but it was the spinners Ashwin and Jadeja who would have made the team management happier. South Africa had in-form batsmen who play big strokes. To tie them down and compel mistakes was a fine effort by Jadeja and especially Ashwin.
e) Dhoni's captaincy was immaculate again, and he outwitted de Villiers in field placing as well as the overall approach to the match. There was a calmness about the Indian effort that could only flow from a captain high on confidence, about himself and his players.
f) With two successive wins, and against arguably the best opponents in their pool, India are now assured of a place in the quarter-finals. This not only allows Dhoni the luxury to try out his bench strength against weaker teams, but virtually plot who he would like to play in the quarter-final.
All of this, obviously holds true only till the league phase is played. And even in this period, India must guard against being lulled into complacency and lose momentum.
On another plane, India's victory over South Africa has added an interesting dimension to the tournament. The Proteas have been shown up as hugely vulnerable. So much so that Pakistan's hopes will have been revived to make it to the quarter finals from Pool B.
This tournament just got really interesting.