Soul-searching time for ineffectual India

The math had been done on labyrinthine Indian streets. Qualification permutations dominated water cooler chat. Having licked the wounds that Pakistan afflicted, the nation had arrived at a conclusion that Virat Kohli and his troops are good enough to swat aside Afghanistan, Namibia and Scotland, a reasonably optimistic hypothesis that branded the match against New Zealand as a virtual quarter-final. The weight of a billion expectations was directly proportional to the size of the question mark looming over India’s bouncebackability. Alas, on a night when much was asked of them, the men in blue were pummeled into submission by a quietly confident rival.

Moments after the coin’s flight betrayed him for the umpteenth time, Kohli threw a hackneyed cliche as to how the toss is an uncontrollable factor before speaking about rectifying the errors that brought about their downfall in the campaign opener. To start with, that meant safeguarding their wickets when being put through the left-arm wringer. Trent Boult had given an inkling of his mood on the match eve, aspiring to mirror the carnage Shaheen Afridi caused to an all right Indian top-order exactly a week ago. It wasn’t the routine opening combination this time around as Ishan Kishan joined forces with KL Rahul, but the mere induction of a southpaw didn’t deter Boult from drawing first blood.

Kishan, with a ravenous glint in his eye, whipped a pad strayer of a ball down deep square leg’s throat. It was a rare failure for the young turk, the face of India’s changing T20 stratagem. He had been dismissed just three times inside the Powerplay in his 13 innings opening in the IPL, averaging 117 with a strike rate of 154. Shorn of youthful exuberance at the top, India turned to the sagacity of Rohit Sharma, the compulsive hooker in whom ended up ballooning a sitter to fine leg first ball. Adam Milne, however, grassed the golden chance for New Zealand to gain potentially irrevocable control of the proceedings. It was, perhaps, the faint sliver of luck India needed to get their act together.

Commentators often joke that a culprit of a dropped catch feels the only way to avert the ensuing ignominy is to dig a hole in the park and bury themselves into it. There was no such escape route for Milne, though, as Kane Williamson called upon his rocket-launching services soon. Rahul pounced on a wide loosener before Rohit careened a four and a lazily elegant six to raze the pacer’s atonement agenda.

India would have barely registered the pinch of momentum they had on their side when New Zealand landed another blow at the fag end of the Powerplay. Rahul, who averaged 56 against the Kiwis and held the best T20 average (60.9) in Dubai heading into the contest, wasn’t quite able to get the desired meat on a pull because Tim Southee had cleverly rolled his fingers across the seam. The pitch was no batting paradise either, something Ish Sodhi acknowledged after his double whammy in the middle overs saw the back of Kohli and Rohit, the leading and third-highest run-scorers in T20Is, respectively. ”The pitch was certainly slower than we saw (in the ENG-AUS game). Bit of grass cover but it played slower than expected,” noted the leggie, who boasts of 18 T20I wickets versus India, the most by a bowler.

Sodhi also emphasized the importance of removing Rahul at a juncture when he, and India, were itching to break free. ”A big part of our game is using the spin bowlers in the middle. It was set up by the powerplay bowlers. Tim Southee getting that wicket late in the Powerplay was massive for us and allowed us to do our job through the middle,” he told in the post-match presentation. While Rohit hit a short-arm jab straighter than he intended to find long-on, Kohli would have been better off playing the inside-out loft than the agricultural swish that spelt his doom. Trembling at 48/4 around the halfway stage, the prospect of India reaching a fighting total seemed as quixotic as a couch potato finishing a triathlon.

India were caught on the horns of a classic T20 dilemma. A counterpunch might have come in handy in the endeavour to establish a foothold, but it wasn’t a ploy devoid of danger. A couple of miscues here and there and you run the risk of a cataclysmic implosion, leaving out more than a few overs on the plate. On the other hand, the knee-jerk reflex for India has been to bat in a watchful yet pragmatic manner, the motive being the attainment of a respectable target, a number which if not formidable helps avoid to an extent the disapproving glances from the bowling unit back in the dressing room.

Staying true to character, India played possum during the middle phase, so much so that the rope cushions weren’t even brushed between overs 7-15. They managed merely 38 runs at the cost of three wickets in that eyesore of a period which sure wasn’t a great advertisement for the T20 format. The elusive boundary came after an eternity in the 18th over, that too courtesy of Boult’s waywardness as Hardik Pandya arched back to slash a four past point. Then, as if they had grown tired of their own indolence, India picked up a wee bit of steam, with Ravindra Jadeja manoeuvring across the sticks and crouching low to explore the empty pocket behind square.

Chasing 111, a figure popular as Nelson in cricketing parlance, was never going to be a tough ask for New Zealand, but India could still afford to hope against hope, seeking solace in the knowledge that Jasprit Bumrah’s best T20I returns (4/14) had materialized in Dubai. The proliferation of yorkers kept Martin Guptill and Daryl Mitchell honest, followed by a slower bumper that coaxed the former into a toe-edged hoick across the line. Bumrah struck in the 13th over to boot, as Mitchell fell one shy of his maiden T20I fifty, although he’d killed the chase in the meantime by lambasting Jadeja and Shardul Thakur for 14 runs each off their first overs.

Williamson, who readily played second fiddle as Mitchell tore apart the Indian attack, did complete justice to the ‘nice guys’ tag as he nurdled an austere single to cap off a resounding victory, one that not only pushed them ahead of Namibia in the points table but also brought a semi-spot in clear focus. For, unlike India, New Zealand remain the author of their own fortune.