"Handling pressure, not conditions, the challenge at the World Cup."
Virat Kohli was very clear about the mantra for success at the World Cup as India were set to embark on their England and Wales journey.
And so far, that mantra seems to be working. India handled the pressure well against South Africa, Australia, Pakistan but the game against Afghanistan was the one where they were thrust under pressure the most. No one saw it coming. It must have surprised India themselves given Afghanistan's form and internal hubris. However, India not just handled that pressure well, they manage to reverse it and remained unbeaten in the tournament.
At the Rose Bowl, on a slow track, it turned out to be a game of fine margins. And in the game of fine margins, even being half a step ahead of your opponent wins you matches more often than not. India were that half a step ahead of Afghanistan.
After being asked to bowl first by Virat Kohli, the Afghanistan spinners choked the venerated Indian batting line-up. The pitch was slow and turning in the first half and the Afghan bowlers employed the slow, slower and slowest approach to good effect. Took the pace off the ball and cajoled them into playing expansive shots out of frustration.
Mystery spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman set the tone. He bowled nine deliveries to Rohit Sharma which yielded just one run. The India opener played down the wrong line off the tenth, a carrom ball, and saw his furniture disturbed.
That set the decoy in the minds of the other batsmen...Apart from Kohli.
The Indian captain was batting on an altogether different plane while the other batsmen took an overly conservative approach.
KL Rahul got impatient and went for an unfathomable reverse sweep only to be caught at short third man. Vijay Shankar had a glorious chance to seal that No 4 spot but missed his sweep and was trapped leg before. Their strike-rates read 56.60 and 70.73. Dhoni with a strike rate of 53.85, finally got bored, swung, missed and keeper Ikram Ali Khil did the rest.
Kohli kept the scoreboard ticking and was the only batsman who ended with a strike-rate of 100 or more. He ran 34 ones, five twos, one three and hit five fours in his innings of 67 off 63 balls. That was the first real difference in the game of fine margins.
Rashid Khan, Rahmat Shah, Nabi and Mujeeb stifled the batsmen and pushed them into inertia. However, the pacers couldn't maintain the same pressure. While the spinners gave away runs at 3.50 per over and took five wickets (34-0-119-5) the pacers went for 6.56 (16-1-105-3)
This was the second real difference. It would prove to be crucial.
India knew that they were about 30-40 runs short of the par score. So they employed their very own theme which had made them so successful in Tests at home. Create pressure. Choke. Maintain stranglehold. Asphyxiate. Force into submission.
Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami came out all guns, rocket launchers blazing and beating the flamboyant Hazratullah Zazai like a snare drum, eventually forcing him to succumb to a nothing slog with the ball crashing onto the stumps. The pressure has been built. Then it was released by Hardik Pandya who conceded 20 off his first two overs. Then again the pressure was on as the wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal kept tight noose before Pandya sang the redemption song with the wicket of the set Gulbadin Naib.
After those two Pandya overs, India didn't allow Afghanistan to build the momentum. It was a day when Kohli's tactics worked. Just when a partnership was building between Rahmat Shah and Shahidi, he brought back his ace. Bumrah turned around the match with two wickets in one over sending both the set batsmen back in the hut.
The Indian bowlers kept sustained pressure on the Afghanistan batsmen in spite of the fact that the wicket has become better for batting. From 26-40 overs they conceded just 59 runs and picked up three wickets conceding just three fours.
Afghanistan had bowled 152 dot balls. But India went half a step ahead and bowled 178. The plan was to choke the scoring which would lead to wickets, rather than go straight after wickets. They bowled accurate lines and varied the pace well. The use of bouncers also proved to be lethal.
The Indian wrist spinners were always going to be tough to get away on this pitch. The Indian batsmen had found a slight yet crucial release point via the Afghanistan pacers. And while Afghanistan would have looked to do the same, the Indian pacers had already plugged that point right from the start and throughout.
Mohammed Nabi was the only Afghan batsman who found some momentum. At one stage, it looked as if he could take Afghanistan past the finish line but Shami and Bumrah put in an exhibition of brilliant death bowling to deny them. Bumrah bowled nine yorkers in his last two overs while Shami kept it full knowing that it would be difficult to clear the long straight boundaries, and finished with a hat-trick in the final over of the match.
"We saw that wicket was getting slower and slower so with the older ball, it was necessary to be accurate and bowl stump to stump," Bumrah explained after the match. "This is a big ground and there was reverse swing as well, so rely on your yorkers, you can use the slower ones as well and but according to the situation. It was a tight game so I was backing my yorkers.
"Sometimes when you run behind wickets, you don't get wickets. We wanted to create pressure and take the run rate high. As soon as the required rate gets high, that creates chances. So that was the plan and it was a good day so it worked."
Not a single Afghanistan batsman finished with a strike-rate of 100 or over 100. If only they had taken a cue from Kohli earlier in the innings. The pacers, Bumrah and Shami, had collective figures of 29.5-3-130-8 at an economy rate of 4.41 compared to Afghanistan's 6.56. India had won the choke and pressure battle.
While the earlier victories were relatively easy, India would have been happy that they were thoroughly tested before the business end of the tournament. The middle order also got time in the middle. In a tournament where consistency is crucial, the batsmen would look to go back and review their dismissals.
Sometimes the tough wins inject more confidence than the easy ones. This win was one such kind.
"This game was way more important to be honest as I said it didn't go as plan. But when things don't go your way, you need to show some character and bounce back and fight till the last ball and that shows the character of the team. We take a lot of heart from this win and take the confidence going forward," Virat Kohli said.
Four wins from five matches. Unbeaten so far. Bring on the West Indies then!
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