Scene 1: India had just landed home after thrashing Australia 3-0 in the T20I series in January, setting the tone for their World T20 campaign. In Pune, they faced Sri Lanka in the first game of another three-match series. It was a different pitch than any they came across Down Under; green, bouncy and with quite a bit of movement for the seamers.
Virat Kohli was on leave. In-form openers Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma got out cheaply. Ajinkya Rahane struggled on his return to the playing XI. Suddenly, the middle order stood exposed and in retaliation, they tried to hit out. It didn’t make for good viewing with Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh wasting their starts. End result – 101 all out.
Scene 2: Opening game of the World T20 Super 10s in Nagpur. New Zealand had put up 126 runs on the board. The wicket was taking turn but it wasn’t vicious like the one served up against South Africa three months ago. The openers departed quickly. India were 10/2 and the middle order once again came a cropper, bamboozled by the Black Caps’s spin barrage. Kohli and MS Dhoni launched a fightback but that wasn’t enough. End result – a stunning 47 run loss that shredded India’s favourites’ tag.
What is the common denominator in these two losses?
It is the difference in conditions and the failure of Indian batting line-up to counter the situation. In Pune, the juicy pitch caught them unawares after the dead Australian tracks all of January. In Nagpur, they were a touch complacent and stumped by the New Zealand spinners’ ability to get the job done, amply shown in the manner in which Rohit Sharma charged Mitchell Santner on only the second ball he bowled.
“It was more an English wicket than a sub-continental one. Definitely (at least) having one partnership on this pitch was important,” Dhoni had said in Pune. He wasn’t happy with similar greenish pitches in the Asia Cup, but had no complaints against the Nagpur track. “It was a decent pitch I thought, and we have seen pitches like this in the IPL where 140 is the par-score. We lacked partnerships.”
Here’s the thing though. Pitches like the ones in Pune and Nagpur are one-offs in T20 cricket. As Dhoni commented in his post-match presser: “IPL is the one parameter to judge this format” and how many times do you see such green wickets or raging turners?
In between Pune and Nagpur, India were able to score 196/6 and 166/6 whilst batting first, as also chasing scores of 142/5 and 122/5. They went on a seven-match unbeaten run, outlining the strengths of this line-up in terms of both batting and bowling.
It is also safe to assume that any team meetings in Kolkata will feature some talk about what they did right in the last six weeks, as much as what they did wrong in Nagpur. Ego for one, and complacency the other, have already been taken care of by the New Zealand bowlers.
“That’s what my job is. If the result doesn’t go the way you want it to, that’s the time when everybody needs to pitch it. I always try and tell the team not to think too much about the fact that we have scored only 80-90 runs. Rather, look at the mistakes and how to rectify them, and come back stronger. This team has done that time and again, and the boys know how to bounce back from a bad defeat. So I don’t think I will have to work too hard,” said skipper Dhoni.
Ahead of the all-important Pakistan clash though, the team management must also realize the one deficiency that is slowly becoming obvious. Indian batting is heavily reliant on its top-order for delivering the goods, and for good reason.
Before the Nagpur game, Kohli averaged an astonishing 117.33 in the 11 matches since January.
Dhawan and Sharma scored at 32.33 and 30.63, respectively. With Dhoni coming in later and blasting everything out of the park, it leaves a weakened middle order when you consider that Raina and Yuvraj haven’t been scoring adequately.
Perhaps Dhoni needs to be a bit more flexible with his batting order. It may help ease off any panic if there is another top-order collapse. There is nobody calmer than the skipper himself: be it a tense finish or a high-pressure game.
“There is no game we play for India when there is no pressure on us. The match versus Pakistan is a must-win game, yes. After losing in Nagpur, we have to win all our remaining games to reach the semi-finals,” said the Team India captain.
The games against Bangladesh and Australia are some distance away and it is the immediacy of the high-profile Pakistan clash that is a bit worrisome. Tables have turned from the Asia Cup. Never mind the crowd support at Eden Gardens, or the billion prayers from the rest of the country — the Men in Blue will not enter the fray as favourites as per the form guide in this World T20.
In what will most assuredly be a frenzied atmosphere, there is only one possible advice on offer for the Men in Blue then: keep calm and play! Play the same good cricket that won you 10 out of 12 T20I matches since January.