Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s remarkable ability to stay cool and take hard decisions while under the cosh was brought to the fore yet again on Sunday. His calm, reassuring leadership was the primary reason why the rest of the squad did not lose composure when Australia’s opening batsmen unleashed a savage attack on two of India’s key bowlers — Jasprit Bumrah (17 runs in his first over) and Ravichandran Ashwin (22 runs in his first).
The Aussies had a plan: bat first, pile up a huge total and put the Indian team under pressure during the chase.
The first part of the plan, of winning the toss and batting first, went right. The brazen assault on Bumrah and Ashwin, too, played out according to the script. But beyond that they came against two formidable obstacles: the experienced veteran, Ashish Nehra, and a rival skipper who thought on his feet and improvised as the game progressed.
Nehra was simply brilliant in the opening overs. Even as Usman Khawaja (26; 16b, 6x4) and Aaron Finch (43; 34b, 3x4, 2x6) ignited the fire and put up 50 runs in just 3.4 overs, Nehra pulled it back with some classical left-arm medium fast bowling.
He repeatedly took the ball away from the left-handed Khawaja and occasionally slanted it into him and thus in his initial spell of three overs, conceded a mere 16 runs. This was fantastic considering that at the other end, in just two overs, Bumrah and Ashwin had conceded a whopping 39 runs.
Nehra’s dismissal of Khawaja with a peach of an outswinger was just the shot in the arm the home team needed.
It was at this stage that the genius of Dhoni’s leadership once again surfaced. He used Bumrah for the last of the powerplay overs and swiftly called upon the services of his spinners to slow things down.
Ashwin in his second over had the left-handed Warner stranded outside his crease with a delivery that spun away. But it was clear that Ashwin was uncomfortable bowling to Finch. And this is where Dhoni was not loath to shelve his ace spinner.
Ashwin had struggled against the Australians in Australia last year too, to the extent that he was dropped after two ODIs where his bowling figures were 2 for 68 in 9 overs and 0 for 60 in 10. Here, with Finch threatening to hit him out of the Punjab, and Ashwin seemingly affected by it, Dhoni took him off the firing line and brought in Yuvraj Singh instead. Pointedly, Ashwin (31 runs from 2 overs) did not bowl again.
Dhoni’s choice of Yuvraj was interesting, to say the least. Yuvraj hadn’t bowled a ball in this tournament. There were whispers that a painful shoulder was hampering his bowling and his throwing. But with the Aussie batsmen looking menacing, Dhoni banked on the experienced Yuvraj to pull things back.
And how brilliantly did Yuvraj respond to the challenge!
On a pitch tailor-made for his style of bowling, he either tossed the ball up, inviting the batsmen to use their feet or pushed it through into their pads when he sensed them advancing. His bowling made the difference in those key middle overs when the Australians not only failed to step on the gas but also lost two aggressive batsmen, skipper Steve Smith and Finch.
The slow nature of the pitch, the vast outfield and the purposeful bowling of Yuvraj and Jadeja were topped up by Hardik Pandya’s back-of-the-length bowling. The medium pacer kept three men in the deep on the leg side and kept pitching the ball well short of driving length. His two wickets, of Finch and the dangerous finisher James Faulkner, threw the Aussie innings out of gear.
That they took 15 runs off Pandya’s final over was mainly due to unfancied Peter Neville squeezing out 10 runs in two balls. Else Australia would have been contained to a total of around 150.
India’s fightback on the day was truly remarkable. When Australia were 51 without loss at the end of four overs, a total closer to 200 loomed large. But that was not to be only because Dhoni proved that he was master of the game in these conditions.