There was a point in the India-Bangladesh semi-final when Sabbir Rahman threatened to snatch away the early advantage from India after Soumya Sarkar's wicket in the first over. The Rajshahi born batsman's counter-attack was even being compared with Aravinda De Sliva's 1996 semi-final blitz at one point of time. He dismissed full deliveries through the off side while used his feet and converted good-length deliveries into full ones by charging down the track and clearing the infield.
For Indian bowlers, there was a need for a change.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar realised that soon and bowled the first bouncer of the match, in the fifth over. Sabbir was beaten by pace as he ducked under it. Sabbir then charged down the track, as Bhuvneshwar banged it in short again outside off, and an off-balance Sabbir missed his pull. In the next over, Jasprit Bumrah consistently bowled back of length, cramping Tamim Iqbal for room for a maiden.
Sabbir danced down the track once again to Bhuvneshwar in the sixth over but the Indian pacer was one step ahead with his bouncer, which was his third in a row. Sabbir again failed to connect the pull. The next one was a back of a length delivery and then a slower length ball — both blocked by Sabbir. Then came the bouncer again, it was fast and accurate, and Sabbir had no option but to duck under it.
Bangladesh had now played out 13 dot balls in a row. The pressure was built and momentum slowly sucked out. The next ball from Bhuvneshwar was an outswinger, back of a length and a tad wide. Sabbir, seemingly frustrated, was drawn into the cut and he hit it straight to point. The psychological battle was won. It was one of the crunch moments of the game. And that period between 4.5 to 6.5 overs in the Champions Trophy semi-final was a testament to the Indian bowlers' increased game intelligence.
There is a method to everything that this Indian team does. Be it batting, bowling or fielding. It's simple yet it stifles the opposition. Build pressure in the powerplay with frugal bowling and then encash on the impatience in the middle overs has been their mantra in this tournament. They have the best economy rate in powerplay one in this tournament at 4.29. And have taken most wickets in powerplay two — 19 with the best strike rate of 36.53.
They trotted on along the same path against Bangladesh at Edgbaston.
After reducing Bangladesh to 46/2 in the first 10 overs, they forced Bangladesh into manufacturing shots and taking risks. The cautious Tamim unleashed reverse sweeps while Mushfiqur Rahim unfurled scoops and paddles. It brought back some momentum for Bangladesh as they added 103/0 at 6.86 per over from 12th to 27th over. With Ravichandran Ashwin not finding his rhythm and Hardik Pandya struggling, Virat Kohli brought on part-timer Kedar Jadhav in the 26th over.
It didn't take long for the pint-sized batting dynamite to trigger his uncanny habit of picking up wickets at crucial junctures as he enticed Tamim (70) into a false shot and cleaned him up in the 28th over.
This was the turning point of Bangladesh's innings. Six overs later, Ravindra Jadeja removed Shaikb Al Hasan and Jadhav sent back a set Mushfiqur (61) in the next over to derail Bangladesh. The three spinners varied their pace, lines and lengths cleverly and applied sustained pressure which resulted in regular wickets.
India gave away just 36 runs and picked up three wickets from 27th to 37th over. Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar returned to perform a clinical finishing job. Bangladesh never got the momentum going after Tamim's departure and ended up with a below-par 264 on a pitch which Kohli described as "great for batting" after the match.
"Kedar's spell was probably the difference for us when we were bowling," Kohli said in the post-match conference. "He got us those breakthroughs and then we could build on it. I think the wicket was easily a 300-310 par wicket. They never got away from us and that was the good thing about out bowling. It wasn't like they were going at eight-nine an over and we have to pull them back. We never let them get to six an over as well. So it was very clinical from the bowlers and they adapted really well," Kohli added.
India's top order made it a look like a walk in the park as they chased the total down with 59 balls to spare. It was the bowling unit that set the tone for the comprehensive victory.
The positive energy emanated from the bowlers has, in turn, boosted the batsmen's confidence. Their ability to adapt, adjust, out-think and bounce back has made the India side a formidable bowling unit with a very strong bench. While the white ball has befuddled many by refusing to swing, the Indian bowlers have cleverly adapted to the situation by varying their lengths.
They choked South Africa on a slowish wicket in Cardiff with tight lines and preternatural lengths in the first 10 overs, which instigated South Africa's brain-fade moments. The nagging accuracy and discipline just asphyxiated the South African batsmen and they ended up caving in.
"Generally, we always go for wickets in the first 10 overs when the ball swings," Bhuvneshwar said after the South Africa win. "But now we look to contain them and then take wickets when pressure builds. Teams try to save wickets till the last 10 overs before going big at death.
"You have to be proactive, you have to vary your lengths all the time and you have to be consistent as well. So the margin of error is quite less. We were just focusing on that and trying to hit good, hard lengths and not to give them room," Bhuvneshwar added.
The Sri Lanka match at The Oval was a rare blip and a wake-up call but the Indian bowlers have responded really well by setting a foundation in both the must-win matches.
In the last couple of years, India's bowling unit has undergone a massive improvement. Since the 2015 World Cup, Indian bowlers have picked up seven or more wickets in an innings in 25 of the 31 ODIs. They have bowled the opposition out eight times in the last 15 ODIs and have the best economy rate of 5.26 among the top-eight ranked sides in the last one year.
“It feels good that we have not just one but four or five bowlers who can change the game any time with their skills," Kohli said ahead of the Sri Lanka match. "It feels good that other (teams’) batsmen too feel intimidated against our bowlers. It gives the batsmen a lot of confidence because you know your bowlers will do well. As batsman, if you bat well then the match will come your way for sure," he added.
The intimidation factor echoed in Angelo Mathews' words.
“The (Indian) batting line-up has always put teams under pressure. This bowling line-up is quite different,” said Mathews before the India game. “They’re one of the best in the world. You get a good balance of spin and pace, and they’re all different to each other, and they’ve got a fantastic bowling attack. For the batters it will be hard work.”
For years and years, India craved for a bowling line-up that could complement the batsmen. They have finally unearthed one.
There is variety, aggression, guile, adaptability and intelligence in this bowling attack and it is this deadly combination that makes India a complete team and a formidable force in the international arena.
With stats inputs from Umang Pabari