Sitting in the press conference room after an inspiring Indian bowling performance in Melbourne, young Khaleel Ahmed expressed the dressing room’s frustration. “With a good batting performance, we could have levelled the series (tonight),” he said.
137 from 19 overs? Doable. 90 from 11 overs? Tough ask but doable. 46 from 5 overs? Again, tough but doable. Unlike in Brisbane, the DLS method was kind to India at Melbourne, but there is nothing much you can do when the rain gods decide to dance on your parade. And so things stand 1-0 in favour of Australia, going into the final T20I in Sydney on Sunday.
Just think about it. Australia, who haven’t won a T20I contest of note since March 2018, who have only beaten Pakistan once in 11 matches (one serious opponent) before this series, who have been embroiled in a tumultuous period off the pitch, and who have fielded arguably their weakest teams across formats for nearly eight months now, could win a T20I series against India on Sunday.
A week ago, it seemed impossible. India arrived here as favourites, across formats, a unique standing in their entire history of traveling Down Under. They lost in Brisbane – thanks to some shoddy fielding, a bit of rain and DLS calculations. Even then, Australia winning the series seemed nearly impossible with two matches remaining. Rain then did its job in the hosts’ favour at the MCG.
As such, it is now no longer impossible that Australia could win this T20I series. Five days is a long time in cricket, and a very long time when you consider a bilateral back-to-back three-match T20I series. Somehow, some way, the pendulum has swung in Australia’s favour and their dressing room will be buoyant on Sunday with the prospect of winning this series.
Worst-case scenario for Australia perhaps now stands at improbable – surely this strong Indian line-up cannot go three T20Is without a win? Mathematically it can, and this factoid is what will inspire Australia the most. After all, all sport is technically a game of mathematics. You need to get the equations right, get the sum of parts right, and then execute those equations/parts on the field. If it all adds up, you win the game.
For one reason or another, it hasn’t added up for India in this series. Rain aside, their fielding has been shoddy in both the matches so far, with dropped catches galore even in Melbourne. At the Gabba, the team combination didn’t match up to their expectations, while the ploy to send an out-of-sorts at KL Rahul backfired in the first match. While it is an easy assumption that India would have scored those runs at the MCG, it can also not be ignored that their bowling combination in the second T20I was inspired by conditions in part.
If it hadn’t rained cats and dogs in Melbourne over the weekend, would India have played Yuzvendra Chahal on a drop-in pitch which did exhibit some turn, as shown by Krunal Pandya against Glenn Maxwell? We will never know, perhaps. So let us turn this conjecture into an obvious question – will Chahal play in Sydney? It is not raining here and conditions are drier than in Brisbane or Melbourne.
Regardless of what happened in the first two games, conditions will come into India’s considerations for this third T20I. If indeed the ploy would be for three spinners, and Chahal comes in the reckoning, Virat Kohli will have to drop Ahmed despite his impressive showing in Melbourne. It will mean once again that Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah will share the new ball, which isn’t a bad thing in itself. Or is it?
A key element of Rohit Sharma’s captaincy during the home series against West Indies, or even during the Asia Cup in UAE, was how he used Bumrah creatively. Sharma, in his short time as stand-in captain/vice-captain, has shown certain calculation in his bowling plans. Unlike MS Dhoni, he doesn’t come across as imaginative, not making momentary decisions. Unlike Kohli, he doesn’t come across as forceful, who will not deter from well-set plans.
This calculative ability from Sharma has been seen time and again in the Indian Premier League, as he has led Mumbai Indians to unprecedented success since taking over as captain. It is not starting to show off in the international arena, whenever an opportunity comes by. So much so, that captain Kohli used Sharma’s ploy of deploying Bumrah as first-change at Melbourne and it worked wonders as the pacers troubled the Australian top-order.
It puts Kohli in some quandary. Although he is not averse to chopping and changing at the drop of a hat, at times he shows certain rigidity in plans, whether it is bowling changes or field placements. Thus far, Australia has tested both these traits of his captaincy in only a short span of time. So, does Kohli make a change or not?
Picking Chahal and opening with Bumrah will be all about Kohli’s thinking. Not doing so will have Sharma’s imprint. It makes an already delightful match-up even more interesting. India are desperate not to lose this series because it will give a boost to Australia ahead of the Test series, not to mention a whole lot of ammunition to the Australian media and public as well. And we know how that goes in general.
More importantly though, a won/lost series – with Kohli’s plans – and a series won or lost – with Sharma’s leadership imprint on it – will have different bearings on how this Indian T20I team is perceived in the near future. The stakes couldn’t be higher.