India could have easily rolled over and died in Johannesburg. It would have been nothing new. A series lost away from home. People asking questions. We have been there before. Apart from Perth in 2007-08, when the team felt victimised in Australia, India don't do well after losing a series. This team, though, has shown it can turn back and bite.
It is a far cry from the ones that sleepwalked from one nightmare to another in England in 2011 and in Australia in 2011-12. This team made all the bold calls - "We had the belief, now we have the result," Virat Kohli said - backed it up with batting full of courage and skill and and bowling that was ruthless to bring India a "sweet" victory that "will be remembered for a long time".
Most importantly, the joy they felt at this win - led by captain Kohli - in a format fighting for survival shows at least Indian Test cricket is in good hands. When they are celebrating this win, and they deserve to, they will do well to spare a thought for a man who has seen the worst of Indian Test cricket. This win will be extra sweet for the only survivor among those who featured prominently in the two whitewashes in England and Australia.
Ishant Sharma bowled uncomplainingly in each of those eight defeats. Others pulled hammies and went home, Ishant turned up at the nets and bowled. Others would bowl poorly and be taken off, Ishant would bowl just well enough to keep getting long spells without any support. Others would bowl within themselves to last a series, Ishant would leave everything on the ground. Australian batsmen off the record would attribute other Indian bowlers' success to the pressure from Ishant's end, but India would ridicule "unlucky Ishant".
He had his problems. He was not a strike bowler. His stock length was a little short. He was not a swing bowler. He was a third seamer forced to be the lead seamer because the other options were not reliable. He struggled in ODIs. Whatever Ishant might have been, he was not a shirker. The captain could go to him anytime, and he would be ready to bowl, no matter the situation. He would bowl the dirty overs and the glamour bowlers would swoop in when he would create a breakthrough.
Ishant is now India's most experienced Test player and he hardly ever bowls a bad ball nowadays even though he doesn't take wickets by the truckload. He is part of an attack that is fit and skillful and varied. At times, he is still left out on helpful pitches. But when things go bad, he is the man Kohli goes to. Ishant is India's lifeline. He keeps India in games. He gives others a chance to recover and be available to strike when the opposition is vulnerable.
"Whatever Ishant might have been, he was not a shirker. The captain could go to him anytime, and he would be ready to bowl, no matter the situation. He would bowl the dirty overs and the glamour bowlers would swoop in when he would create a breakthrough."
"Obviously, I am the senior fast bowler of this team so I have to take the responsibility [of bowling these tough overs]," he said in Centurion. "If I can take responsibility and take those important wickets for the team, I am always up for it." It was assumed he had been dropped when the pitch was green in Cape Town and called up on the brown one at SuperSport Park, but Ishant also clarified he had not been well just before the first Test. Not to say that the team doesn't value him, but nobody in the management bothered to communicate that.
In some of India's more memorable wins of late, even dating as far back as Lord's 2014, Ishant has worked when nothing else has. In Bangalore, when India were bowled out for 189 on the first day, Ishant prevented Australia from dominating. It wasn't a pretty spell, his analysis had only one in the last column, but he conceded runs at just 1.77 an over.
In the sweet win of Johannesburg, Ishant did the same in both innings. India were bowled out for 187, nightwatchman Kagiso Rabada was beginning to hurt them, and it was Ishant who first plugged the runs and then took the wicket. In the second innings, when Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla looked like running away with the Test, Ishant again dragged them back. Unlike Mohammed Shami, or even Jasprit Bumrah at times, there were no loose balls. Amla couldn't drive him, couldn't punch him, and eventually played the shot he did to get out.
In that seven-over spell, Ishant produced the wicket of Faf du Plessis too with a ball that seamed in a mile and hit the off stump. This was a rare sexy wicket for him. He had earned it, and the celebration to go with it. In the end, Ishant only has eight wickets to show for his work in South Africa, but his economy rate is the best for an Indian in the series: 2.17. And it wasn't achieved by hiding the ball outside off; it came through hard lengths bowled just outside off. The same lengths that make him an unappealing option in limited-overs cricket and leaves him unsold at IPL auctions.
Ishant might not trend on Twitter. But in the change room, they will value the three wickets he took in the match as much as the five-fors two of his team-mates took. They know there will again be some day when the pitch will be flat, when the opposition will have a big partnership going, when dirty overs will have to be bowled.