New Zealand bow down to a shrewd manipulator

Suryakumar Yadav played and missed twice after getting off the mark with a steer to third man. He drove on the rise on both occasions but the ball held its line to whizz past the outside edge. Aware that Lockie Ferguson had claimed the psychological high ground, he brought out the signature scoop. The execution was far from immaculate, translating into a streaky boundary, but the adventurous riposte was a microcosm of how Suryakumar likes to play his cricket. By dictating terms rather than obeying orders.

He didn’t let Mitchell Santner apply the finishing touches to a quiet over, sweeping skillfully from outside off to fetch a six. The first ball of his next over was slashed through backward point for a boundary. While Santner responded well to keep the damage to a minimum, the tactic of disrupting the bowler’s rhythm straightaway worked like a charm against Ish Sodhi and Tim Southee, who conceded 15 and 17 runs respectively after an expensive beginning to the over. The fact that Suryakumar’s takedown hamstrung New Zealand’s most reliable operators begs the question why Kane Williamson and Daryl Mitchell were so irenic in dealing with Deepak Hooda that he eventually returned a four-wicket haul in India’s defence of 192.

Covers was a productive scoring region for Suryakumar, yielding 29 of his 51-ball 111*. The spinners were wary of flighting the ball much, asking the Indian batters to manufacture shots from a good length. Ishan Kishan raised the white handkerchief as Sodhi hit his spot unfailingly, but Suryakumar rode on his quicksilver footwork and improvisational abilities to open up scoring avenues. He created room for himself to go inside out versus the flatter trajectories, and the rare occurrences where the spin twins tossed it up above the eyeline were met with purposeful shimmies that effectuated demoralizing lofts. It was remarkable that Suryakumar maintained his shape and went with the spin, instead of giving it an agricultural whack once he reached the pitch of the ball. For, field manipulation is the bedrock of his game, not brute force.

“I’m enjoying batting this way, I’ve been doing the same thing in the nets, all practice sessions and going out in the middle, and I’m very happy that it’s just coming off for me,” Suryakumar shed light on his preparation.

“You have to do all the processes and routines the same way when you’ve done well. So 99% I try to do the same things on match day the same way. For example, if I have to do a gym session or if I have to eat lunch at the perfect time or if I have to take a power nap for about 15-20 minutes. These are all small things which I try to do on game days and when I come to the ground I feel good. That is my zone,” he added.

Suryakumar raised his 11th fifty in 2022 – only Mohammad Rizwan has more in a calendar year – off 32 balls, a strike-rate that measured up to the expectations from a modern-day T20I batter. But then he exploded, bludgeoning 61 off 19 as New Zealand found containing him as difficult as nailing jelly to a tree. Neither Lockie Ferguson’s tramline yorkers nor Adam Milne’s leg-cutters could limit the damage as Suryakumar attained the zenith of hand-eye co-ordination, best exemplified by him opening the bat face to carve a missile aimed at the top of off-stump over point.

Perhaps the only way New Zealand could escape the petrifying punishment was by keeping Suryakumar confined to the non-striker’s end. And so it happened in an anti-climatic final over that produced Southee’s second hat-trick in the format. There was no point, however, in closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.

”In T20, a hundred is always special but at the same time, it was really important for me to bat till the very end. Hardik was telling me to bat till the 18th or 19th over, and get to a score of 185 or so. After the end of the 16th over, we had a chat about taking it deep. It was important to maximise the last few overs,” Suryakumar highlighted.

Having posted the highest T20I score at the venue, India had a varied attack – off-spinner in Washington Sundar, leggie in Yuzvendra Chahal, genuine swing bowler in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, left-arm angle provider in Arshdeep Singh and an enforcer in Mohammed Siraj – at their disposal to clip Kiwi wings. The new-ball merchants extracted 2.4 degrees of swing in three overs upfront, twice than their counterparts who missed Trent Boult, to keep New Zealand to a tame 32-1 in the PowerPlay.

Williamson lumbering to a run-a-ball 37 further dampened their chances, and it’s high time coach Gary Stead starts worrying about whether the skipper is doing their T20 cricket more harm than good. Sunrisers Hyderabad have addressed the elephant in the room, and New Zealand might be tempted to follow suit because anchors are losing relevance in the day and age of stark raving mad swashbucklers, like the one who consigned the hosts to a leather hunt.