India captain MS Dhoni’s monstrous finish in the Asia Cup final against Bangladesh was the perfect exclamation point to a tournament in which India won all their games. And he didn’t even leave it until the last over either.
The winning streak has hit seven games and they have lost just one of their last 11. India’s 0-2 series loss to South Africa at home just five months ago now feels as if it belonged to a different era and a different team.
In a sense, this is a different team.
The selectors went to work after that loss and the changes they have wrought have transformed the side, especially the bowling. The introduction of Ashish Nehra and Jasprit Bumrah has ignited the bowling attack. Nehra has been a beacon of consistency, taking at least one wicket in the PowerPlays in eight consecutive games. He has been India’s threat with the new ball, getting it to swing and seam in a way that Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohit Sharma were not able to.
At the other end, Bumrah has pounded in yorker after yorker with his unorthodox action. A wonderful example of his ability to squeeze batsmen at the death came in the final against Bangladesh. Mahmadullah had taken Hardik Pandya apart in the penultimate over, smashing him for two sixes in the course of ransacking 21 runs. A similarly big final over would have given Bangladesh a comfortable total to defend. Bumrah did not allow a boundary and kept the runs down to seven as he finished with figures of 1 for 13 from three overs. His reliability at the death is a weapon India rarely possessed.
With R Ashwin now being his typical excellent self and the swapping of Axar Patel for Ravindra Jadeja, the bowling attack looks complete with variety, consistency and multiple wicket-taking threats.
That over against Bangladesh notwithstanding, the 22-year-old Pandya has also defied Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s assessment that India lacks a seam bowling all-rounder to slot into that role with a confidence and fearlessness that seems to be a common trait among his generation, possibly because the IPL has exposed them to international cricketers and high pressure situations.
He finished the Asia Cup with seven wickets, the best among India’s bowlers, at an average of 14.71 and an economy rate of 5.88. Even on bowler friendly pitches, that’s going to make you sit up and take notice.
According to an analysis by ESPNCricinfo, India can boast of the best bowling average and economy rate against other nine top teams since the last World T20 in 2014 (excluding the Asia Cup final). In fact, “they have been the only team with a sub-20 bowling average and an economy rate of less than 7.50.”
During the Asia Cup, Dhoni complained that low-scoring games were not good practice “in terms of hitting” for the World T20. "The reason why people love T20 is the sixes and fours," Dhoni said. "At the same time you don't want (teams scoring) 80s and 100s. Low scoring should be 130-140s and high-scoring can be 200 or 240.”
Dhoni, no doubt, was looking at it from the perspective of Indian pitches for the ICC World T20 that are likely to be batting featherbeds that encourage the kind of big hitting Dhoni believes fans care about. But this reduces the bowlers’ role in the game to a sideshow. They merely provide cannon fodder for the batsmen and there is a veneer of a contest.
As Dale Steyn recently pointed out in an interview with ESPNCricinfo, nobody would want to be a bowler if that’s the idea. Besides, there are plenty of fans who like to see a good contest and a low-scoring game can be just as thrilling as a high-scoring one. Anyone who watched Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Amir’s spell against India can attest to that.
What the Asia Cup pitches did, in fact, do is restore the balance between bat and ball and test the skills of all the teams. As Alagappan Muthu put it for ESPNcricinfo, “In the Asia Cup, with these sporting tracks, skill has been the deciding factor.
Admittedly, the Asia Cup had a weak field but that’s not India’s fault. All India could do was to beat their opponents, which they did in some style, proving in the process that they can win matches with both bat or ball depending on conditions. That’s the mark of a great team.
The next stop is the World T20 on home soil. The last time a World Cup was played in India, Sachin Tendulkar was carried off the field a world champion. With questions about Dhoni’s time as India captain constantly swirling, the stars seem to be aligning. Great teams don’t always win – just ask the 1983 West Indies team that lost to India in the World Cup – but this India team is starting to feel like a team of destiny, just like in 2011.