When does a tied match seem like a defeat? That would be a good question to pose to the Indian team that repeatedly exhibited a shocking inability to grab opportunities against Afghanistan in the Asia Cup on Tuesday.
Little surprise then that at the end of 100 overs, it was the inexperienced Afghanistan team that came out smelling of roses. Their bowlers and fielders handled pressure far better than India’s cricketers and this helped them sign off with a last-over wicket that sealed the tie.
The tied result was as good as a victory for the Afghans and they rightly celebrated it with undisguised glee even as Ravindra Jadeja, who handled the final over pretty poorly, looked forlorn.
What stood out by a mile in India’s chase of a modest Afghanistan target was the contrasting response to the task. Afghanistan’s bowlers and fielders rose to the challenge brilliantly as they time and again showed they could keep a cool head under pressure.
India’s batsmen looked like fish out of water in the chase, particularly when they had to close out the match. Even in the final over bowled by champion cricketer Rashid Khan, Jadeja showed very poor grasp of the situation by taking a single off the third ball and leaving 20-year-old rookie Khaleel Ahmed, a rabbit with the bat, to weather the wiles of Rashid and bring the team home.
Luckily Ahmed’s wild heave went off the inner edge to short fine leg and bailed out Jadeja; it gave the strike back to him. He now needed to score a single off two deliveries to ensure the win. This should have been easy for a seasoned campaigner like Jadeja.
But the Afghans once again showed greater situational awareness: They took their time in setting the field. They brought all the fielders into single-denying positions, expect for Najibullah Zadran whom they stationed at deep mid-wicket. The time taken over field positioning took its toll on Jadeja’s state of mind. It left him fidgety and on tenterhooks. Ultimately in his anxiety, he lost his nerve and played a wild shot into the hands of the lone fielder in the deep.
Remarkably, Rashid Khan, who really ought to have been under immense pressure in bowling that final over, did not put a foot wrong. He rose to the challenge and was spot-on with the bowling while the more experienced Jadeja simply packed up.
Jadeja, though, was not the lone Indian to panic in the run chase. KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, and Deepak Chahar too showed poor choice of shots while Kuldeep Yadav and Siddarth Kaul lost their heads under pressure and ran themselves out. Their running between the wickets showed poor awareness of the Afghans’ fielding ability and they thus paid the price. Kedar Jadhav too ought to have been more alert to the danger of backing up too far. But that was not to be. All these batsmen’s brains became scrambled under pressure and led to their downfall.
The umpires too did not handle pressure too well. They ended up giving wrong decisions which cooked skipper Dhoni and Dinesh Karthik’s goose.
In this context, no praise can be too high for Afghanistan’s cricketers. Yes, they had nothing to lose. But the ability to accurately fire in those bullet throws from the deep or grab catches at opportune moments, or even bowl superbly under pressure made their brand of cricket superior on the day.
Even otherwise, Afghanistan’s opening batsman Mohammed Shahzad, who is unlikely to ace any Yo-Yo test anywhere in the world, showed a greater understanding of the requirements of batting than some of India’s better-known batsmen.
Shahzad’s priceless asset was in knowing whom to target. He treated Kuldeep Yadav with respect and hardly ever chanced his arm against him. He, however, went hammer and tongs at the length offerings of pacers Chahar, Ahmed, Kaul and left-arm spinner Jadeja.
Contrast this with the batting of Rahul. He knew that Rashid Khan was Afghan’s number one bowler and the main threat to India in the run chase. Yet he attempted an atrocious, low percentage shot like the reverse sweep and was trapped in front.
It did not require any great cricketing wisdom to know that the slow, low-bounce pitch would need some getting used to for most batsmen. Thus any top-order batsman who had got his eye in needed to carry on, rather than throw it away. Yet Rahul (60 off 66 balls) did just that. It was the turning point of the match.
In the recent past, the Indian team under Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni had earned a reputation of being very good chasers. The duo had anchored the innings to many a victory in a chase. But now, suddenly, it seems like India’s batsmen have slipped back to old ways: Of being excitable and unreliable in a close run chase.
Certainly, this is one tied match that quite a few batsmen in this Indian line-up will struggle to live with. They know that when the time came to stand up and be counted they failed team and country. So what if the records say the match ended in a tie? The batsmen know better: They were defeated.