It wasn't meant to start like this. India were overwhelming favourites going into the World T20, they had won 10 of their last 11 matches. As India restricted New Zealand to 127 on a slow, low wicket, it seemed as if it would be just another day in office for the hosts. But what transpired in the next 90 minutes stunned everyone. India suffered a comprehensive 48-run defeat as they were outclassed by New Zealand's spinners at the Jamtha Stadium, Nagpur.
The ICC World T20 opener brought back memories of the recent Pune match where India went into the match high on confidence after whitewashing Australia but were brought back down to earth after being bowled out for 101 by an inexperienced Sri Lanka pace attack on a green pitch. They were unexpectedly beaten in the opening match before they recovered to win the series 2-1.
Well, the New Zealand setback was just the first match of the tournament, and it's tool early to predict anything right now but what it provided was a wake up call for India's middle order ahead of the clash against Pakistan on Saturday.
As if there was not enough riding on that blockbuster match at the Eden Gardens.
It is evident that India are currently over-reliant on the top order. Heading into the tournament, one of India's strongest suits was the form of its top order — Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. Since Jan 2015, India's top 3 have averaged 38.16 — second only to New Zealand (48.68). Kohli alone has a T20 average of 69.83 in 10 innings, at a strike rate of over 130. These are staggering numbers in the shortest format.
However, this meant that the middle and lower-middle order hadn't got much time to spend in the middle. This was the same problem facing them after the Australia series where the top order scored 76% of the runs and faced 77% of the balls. The Pune match was a chance for the middle order to get some time out in the middle and find some form and get into the groove but they spurned the chance. Suresh Raina walked in with 19 overs to spare, Yuvraj Singh with 15, Dhoni and Hardik Pandya with 12, Ravindra Jadeja with 11. Those five batsmen combined to face a sum total of 51 deliveries. It wasn't an unplayable pitch but poor shot selection brought about their downfall.
Post the Pune match the middle order scored 29 % of the runs, faced just 27 % of the total deliveries and average of 26 balls per match, till the end of Asia Cup as India went rampant with 7 wins in a row.
So when India's openers failed and Suresh Raina too departed inside first three overs, just like Pune, this was a chance for the Indian middle order to get the much-needed time out in the middle and get into the groove. T20 cricket is a game where you cannot afford rustiness with things happening at such a frantic pace. India's middle order wasn't ready. There seemed to be no plan. The pitch was slow and the ball was holding onto the surface which was clearly visible. It wasn't a minefield. However, it was the shot selection that let them down again. No delivery was unplayable or fantastic, the Kiwi spinners did their basics right and waited for the batsmen to commit mistakes which they did.
Raina played one across the line early and was done in by the slowness of the pitch got a leading edge to short mid-wicket off Mitchell Santner. Two overs later, Yuvraj drove one back uppishly to Nathan McCullum only to be caught and bowled, he went too hard at the ball and perished. Hardik Pandya was trapped LBW, again playing across the line against the turn which is a dangerous ploy. Dhoni fought a lone battle but with regular wickets falling, the equation had become almost out of reach and he too gave in to the pressure in the 18th over.
It was a day when India needed their middle order the most but they disappointed big time. Raina, Yuvraj, Dhoni and Pandya combined to score just 36 runs. They had loads of time to spend in the middle but no one applied themselves.
"I think it was a low scoring wicket. I thought we restricted them to a good total, but the batting let us down. The shot selection kept putting pressure on the batsmen coming in," Dhoni said at the post-match presentation ceremony.
"They (New Zealand) bowled well, exploited the conditions, but we lacked adaptability, we could have applied ourselves a little more. The batting let us down," a disappointed Dhoni said.
Dhoni did concede that the middle and lower middle order needs to be alert to situations.
"Every alternate over, we lost one wicket and it becomes more and more difficult once the top order gets out," Dhoni said at the post-match press conference. The batsmen who come in – Nos. 5, 6 and 7 – they have that pressure of one extra wicket falling. It seems as if cricket becomes every difficult but what’s important at that time is that you get some kind of partnership going, even if it is not big when it comes to the number of runs scored. It just gives that calmness to the dressing room and the batsmen who are coming afterwards. I think it was to some extent lack of application; a few good deliveries but it was more soft dismissals than good deliveries," Dhoni added.
In the last nine matches (From 8th February 2016), India's middle order (4-7) has averaged just 16.52 with no fifties or hundreds. Only Sri Lanka (15.68) and West Indies (15, played just a single match) middle order have a worse average among the top nations. India's middle order has faced the least number of balls per match - 30.
Since that Pune game, only Dhoni has averaged 41.50 from 7 innings but that includes five not outs with him getting into double figures just twice - 20* and 30. Yuvraj Singh averages 15.60 from six innings. Raina 15 and Pandya 10.50.
There are high chances that Dhoni won't tinker too much with the batting line-up and these are the players who will need to step-up when Pakistan come calling at the Eden Gardens on Saturday. The chances have been far and few but when they do get it, they haven't capitalised. They need to be alert, they need to be ready for any situation. They need to be more responsible and play according to the situation.
It is not highly probable that the the top order might fail in back-to-back matches and that is the time this famed batting order needs to justify its balance and step up on the big occasion.
There is a fine line between reliance and over-reliance (on the top order) and India needs to make sure that distance is maintained.