The U19 World Cup final was under way and West Indies seamers had dismissed India for a paltry 145 on a green top.
When their turn came to bat, the Caribbean colts appeared to be cruising at 65 for 2 after losing their openers, also to fast bowlers. The match was steadily being eroded of any remaining tension.
Then a tall left-arm spinner was thrown the ball and the game sprang to life.
Mayank Dagar tempted West Indies captain Shimron Hetmeyer into a lofted drive that settled in long-on’s hands in his first over.
In his third, he had Shimron Springer caught at long-off going for the slog-sweep. Jyd Goolie drove the ball straight back to him in his fourth over.
In less than 30 minutes, 65 for 2 had become 77 for 5 and Dagar’s figures read 4-0-9-3. Suddenly, there was renewed belief among India’s ranks and among spectators, an incredulous belief that the colts might even pull it off. That did not happen though.
Dropped catches cost India dear, including two off the spinner’s bowling — one by the ’keeper and one by Sarfaraz Khan at slip — but despite the loss, the performance of the left-arm spinner stood out. He had done his damage by tossing the ball up above the batsman’s eye line, getting it to dip, turn and bounce; all while bowling on or outside off-stump.
It was disciplined, attacking and unapologetically old school. There were no quick, flat, faster deliveries that sacrifice skill and art for accuracy. No doosra or teesra. This was spin bowling Bishan Singh Bedi could get behind.
Best of all, it was planned that way.
“Every batsman wants to pay big shots,” 18-year-old Dagar, the left-arm spinner, told Firstpost over the phone from Delhi.
“I just tried to tempt them. It was obvious they were not that good at taking singles and twos. They had scored with big shots in previous matches. We had an attacking field. I just wanted to bowl in the right areas and let them hit.”
“Let them hit”.
How many bowlers would willingly utter those words today? How many captains would support those that did? But for Dagar, this is elementary stuff.
“If you are giving good revs and if you are bowling consistently in good areas, it doesn’t matter what format you are playing. It will be difficult for any batsman in the world.”
Besides, the conditions required Dagar to rip the ball.
“If the wicket is good for spin, then it doesn’t matter how you bowl. On these wickets (green tops) you can’t bowl flat and expect to get turn. The more revs you put on the ball, the more it spins off the wicket and it lands on the seam, so you get bounce. That is very important for the spinner.”
Dagar is 5 feet, 11 inches tall, so getting bounce comes naturally to him. But he has clarity of thought that is rare for an 18-year-old.
It shows not just in the way he thinks about how he should bowl but also in his understanding that cricket is a game of no fixed rules.
A good length, he says, depends on how the batsman is playing. It is not something cast in stone but depends on pitch, conditions and opponent.
Line, however, is another matter.
“I try to bowl on and around the off-stump. Let the batsman play through the covers or go for a big shot. On the leg-stump, it is easy to push the ball for a single or play the sweep. It is more difficult to play the cross-batted shot from the off-stump.”
Despite sitting out the first two games, Dagar ended the tournament with the best bowler average (9.36), the best economy rate (2.88), the second best strike-rate (19.4) and his 11 wickets were only one shy of Avesh Khan’s team-high 12, achieved in two more games.
At a time when the lack of quality spinners in the country is a cause for concern, Dagar, with his emphasis on traditional cricketing virtues, is a refreshing hope.
He began playing the game thanks to his father, who played cricket for Delhi University. When he was around six or seven, his father started bowling throw-downs to him. Dagar, a natural right-hander, would bat that way but threw the ball left-handed.
Like all kids, Dagar wanted to bat more than bowl but his dad suggested he try bowling left-arm spin. He took to it instantly. There was no inner fast bowler whispering in his ear about knocking a batsman’s head off.
When he was 12, Dagar was admitted to Bishop Cotton School in Himachal Pradesh where his youth career began to take off.
He got on the school team and soon enough was playing age-group cricket for his state (he is quick to praise the infrastructure in Himachal and gives credit to Anurag Thakur, the BCCI secretary, for “taking care of so many things)”.
Dagar made his first-class debut for Himachal Pradesh in the Vijay Hazare semi-final last year, a game Himachal lost. He bowled nine wicket-less overs for 42 runs.
“It was a good experience. Wickets don’t matter sometimes. “If you are bowling in good areas, if you are getting spin and bounce, it feels good,” he said, sounding a bit like R Ashwin.
Through it all, Dagar’s father has remained his mentor and primary coach, which has possibly bred both his self-belief and consistency of approach. He believes in what he is doing and how he is doing it.
“I know my strengths and concentrate on my bowling,” he said. “I try and stick close to the basics as much as I can — high-arm action, side-on, get the twist for the spin. All of this is in favour of me getting loop, putting more rotations, more spin and bounce.”
When things do go wrong, Dagar watches videos of himself when he was bowling well so he can identify what he is doing differently and quickly correct it. He prefers not to get caught up in trying to emulate other bowlers, even successful international ones.
“You can see someone else and learn from them but you cannot copy them.”
He’s also benefitted from practising with Virender Sehwag, who is his mother’s cousin. Sehwag has encouraged him to play his natural game.
As for the Under-19 World Cup, being with the team was the best time of Dagar’s life.
“We were a family. The bonding was so good. The staff was so friendly and we never hesitated to ask them questions. They treated us like we were their children. We are very lucky to have Mr Rahul Dravid and Mr Abhay Sharma and Mr Paras Mhambrey. They made us work so hard and we learned lot of things on and off the field.”
While losing the final was obviously disappointing, Dagar, once again showing remarkable maturity, said it was just a bad day and that happens in sports.
“We played like champions. So win or lose doesn’t matter.”
With the World Cup in the rear view mirror, Dagar’s immediate future involves preparing for his 12th standard exams, which will be held in March. If his youth cricket career had stalled, he says he would have studied English. But now that he has tasted some amount of success, he wants more.
“I will be more focussed on my cricket career. I didn’t lift the Under-19 World Cup so now my aim is to lift the World Cup.”