A record chase and the slow-starting protagonist

Rassie

Aryan Surana

Delhi holds the unenviable distinction of being the world's most polluted city. The air quality index of the Indian capital read 346 on Thursday, 9th June, flirting with the 'hazardous' category. The obvious health effects aside, visibility is compromised. In the pre-match interview, Shreyas Iyer perhaps had that on his mind when he said: ''We did some catching under the dark skies just to get used to it.'' The simulation training was to no avail, however, as Iyer put down a dolly at mid-wicket to reprieve Rassie van der Dussen. Blame it on the smog, eh?

He was batting on 29 off 30 balls, the innings devoid of rhythm. The alarming number of balls van der Dussen had chewed up had pushed South Africa away from their goal, that of chasing 212 on a two-paced Kotla track. David Miller, much to the Proteas' relief, had made up for his partner's ordeal with a 22-ball fifty. But a task of this magnitude needed assistance from both ends, and a change of willow was all it took for van der Dussen to turn the battlefield into a playground.

Harshal Patel, who'd conceded 15 off his two overs while bamboozling Dwayne Pretorious with that lovely dip he gets on the slower ball, came in to bowl his third with India in the ascendancy. 56 off 24 balls is manageable, surely, but the win predictor does gravitate towards the bowling team when one among the two batters is struggling to hit the ball off the square. It seemed as if Miller was standing between India and victory until van der Dussen jolted out of his slumber to flip the narrative.

Batters must be proactive rather than reactive when pitted against a T20 specialist with a bag of variations. Moving around the crease was an essential feature of van der Dussen's strategy to throw Harshal off as he took 22 off the 17th over, the three sixes and a boundary not only fetching him his fifty at warp speed but also putting the game in South Africa's lap.

''Bit sticky there in the middle but David (Miller) is such a good player, he pulled me through that little patch. We knew if we were there till the end then we would win it. I always knew I was just two boundaries away, it was not because of lack of intent, I was clear in my mind what I wanted to do but it didn't come off, you need to be mentally tough through that patch and not give it away, when you take 30 balls your team expects you to do something special,'' van der Dussen reflected on his knock of two halves.

The orchestration of the highest successful chase for South Africa ever meant India fell tantalizingly short of the world record for most successive wins in T20Is. The hosts had eight changes to their side since the last game in Dharamsala and were helmed by a new captain in Rishabh Pant, whose tactics played in the hands of the opposition on a couple of occasions. Yuzvendra Chahal was introduced in the PowerPlay – 16 came off his first – although he excels with a spread-out field at his disposal.

While he launched the leggie at an unfavourable juncture, Pant was guilty of exposing Axar Patel at a stage when the left-arm was likely to be targetted by Miller. South Africa were unable to maximize the final over of the powerplay, unlike India who scored 15. They were 61/2 as compared to India's 51/0, the two wickets offsetting the slight advantage. Axar was then able to sneak in a couple of tight overs because Miller was just getting started. Pant should have protected Axar after the southpaw whacked Harshal to race from 7(8) to 19(12), but instead he put him in the firing line. The over ended in emphatic fashion with 4,6,6. Axar, who had headed into the fourth over with figures of 1/21 walked away with an economy of 10. It is, after all, a learning curve for Rishabh Pant the leader.

Despite being on the wrong side of the result, India will draw heart from the fact that they were no shrinking violets with the bat. Ishan Kishan and Shreyas Iyer didn't hold back their shots even as the odd ball seamed appreciably, spun big or reared up from a length. On a comeback trail, Hardik Pandya took to the finisher's role like a duck to water.

The host broadcaster had pointed out in the build-up how Pant can be tied down via a wide line when he is set, but his wallops through the off-side proved otherwise. That no batter, except Dinesh Karthik who faced only a couple of balls, had a strike-rate below 130 is a telltale sign that India are striving to keep abreast with the dynamics of the shortest format. Change is a constant, but some things remain the same. Catches will still win you matches.