Remnants of grass were left towards the fringes of the pitch at the Brian Lara Stadium in Trinidad, the Carribean heat baking the golden-ivory strip as Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid examined it in earnest. ‘Spin to win’, they must’ve concluded. West Indies thought otherwise, and it took just two balls from Akeal Hosein for the magnitude of the misjudgement to dawn upon the hosts.
Suryakumar Yadav, asked to open as India continued to ”try certain things” in the captain’s words, nearly perished off Hosein’s first ball. He couldn’t get the desired elevation on the inside-out loft but Kyle Mayers goofed up at cover. It was a miracle that his toe-ended slog next ball eluded both the backpedalling bowler and mid-on. Third time was the charm for Hosein as Surya departed in the following over, the ball gripping and turning just enough to take the outside edge and balloon to short third. While Hosein was overjoyed at the sight of a catch being completed, it would’ve been a bittersweet moment for Pooran who’d taken the field with a solo spinner in contrast to India’s three-pronged attack.
Heading into the series opener, Hosein’s track record of PowerPlay bowling didn’t inspire much confidence. He might’ve been placed 10th in the ICC rankings, but his economy rate of 9.20 was the worst among the eleven bowlers to have sent down ten or more powerplay overs in T20Is this year. Hosein bucked the trend on a two-paced wicket, conceding just 11 in his three-over spell even though Alzarri Joseph’s profligacy nudged India to 88-3 by the halfway mark.
Rohit raised a 35-ball fifty after being 18 off 19 at one stage, going past Martin Guptill’s tally of 3,399 runs in the process to reclaim the throne of the highest T20I run-scorer. But India’s gear-shifting venture didn’t take off until the 19th over as Hardik Pandya ramped a bouncer down third man’s throat and Rohit and Ravindra Jadeja fell in quick succession. It wasn’t a surface where you could unleash the big hits from the word go, hence both Dinesh Karthik and Ravichandran Ashwin knocked a few around before dealing the hammer blows in what was a late flourish worth its weight in gold.
Surviving spin and bashing pace has been the hallmark of Karthik’s renaissance in the T20 format. However, Pooran had frontloaded Hosein as he was the only one posing a threat to India’s redoubtable top-order. Entrusted with the penultimate over, Jason Holder leaked 21, a fillip that took India way ahead of the average score of 141 at the venue in 31 CPL games. Ashwin dismissed a full-toss from his presence, and Karthik feasted on a freebie in the slot. Holder’s riposte was not up to scratch either, dropping the slower ball short and wide to be clouted over the infield. West Indies couldn’t safeguard the deep cover region because they were behind the over rate and had to bring an extra fielder inside the ring as a penalty.
Save for Obed McCoy, the West Indian pacers refrained from bowling straight, with Rohit’s wagon wheel bearing testimony as he scored 51 of his 64 runs through the off-side. The instant his radar shifted from the stumps Karthik got under the ball and hit an aesthetically pleasing six with a straight bat. Having said that, the next boundary would’ve scaled a zero on the elegance quotient. Karthik turned into a left-hander to execute the reverse scoop but found himself in an awkward tangle as the edge flew over fine leg.
The 52-run stand between Karthik and Ashwin off 25 balls elbowed West Indies out of the contest. In the 45 instances when India have scored 170 or more batting first in T20Is, they’ve breached 170 without a fifty-run stand from their top-six wickets on five occasions. That three of those five totals have come in the last three matches batting first is reflective of India’s newfound ultra-positive approach.
Winning skipper Rohit recognized the value of the finishing kick. “We knew it was going to be slightly tough. The shot making was not easy at the start. The guys who are set need to carry on as long as possible. There was some grip for the spinners. The odd variation wasn’t easy to pick. The nature of the pitch was slow. It was not easy. The way we finished off the first innings, getting to 190 was great. I really thought this wasn’t the pitch where you could get 170-180 when we were batting in the first half of the innings. But we hung in there, backed our skills and got more than a par score,” Rohit assessed.
West Indies’ erroneous estimation of the pitch had a significant bearing on the outcome of the match as they lost by a fat margin of 68 runs. ”The players are feeling hurt, it’s the first game of the series and we are looking to bounce back. 18 overs it was 150 I guess and then they took the momentum away from us, we just have to work on our discipline. The spinners did well and we have to look at some of the combinations going ahead,” Pooran reflected on a lopsided affair that, perhaps, could’ve panned out differently had Hayden Walsh not warmed the bench.