The pitch at the Rajasekhar Reddy Stadium in Visakhapatnam offered the bowlers some help, batsmen some challenge and fans their money’s worth. Australia’s resilient tail-enders ensured their team would sneak home by three wickets in a low-scoring Twenty20 game with Pat Cummins and Jhye Richardson playing smart cricket to score 14 runs off the final over of the match bowled by Umesh Yadav.
It was not the typical flat deck on which the bowlers’ have their teeth drawn. It was the sort on which batsmen who got their eye in needed to tell themselves to not throw their wickets away and be careful with shot selection. And each time that happened in either innings, the fortunes of the game fluttered like flags in the strong coastal wind that blew in from the Bay of Bengal.
India’s lower-half lacked a gameplan based on running singles and twos while Australia’s tail managed to see the side home with hard work between the wickets after well-set batsmen Glenn Maxwell and D’Arcy Short fell within two overs of one another. Half-centurion Maxwell was out to an ambitious shot against leg spinner Yuzvendra Chahal and Short, run out, to a mix-up with Peter Handscomb.
The problem of set batsmen’s dismissal sparking a change in luck started with skipper Virat Kohli being deceived to taking the aerial route against Adam Zampa. After having made 24 in a 55-run stand with Rahul, he was determined to establish his authority over the leg-spinner and was done in by a ball that drifted a shade outside the leg-stump and forced a stroke that lacked control.
Rahul’s half-century was made with some clean stroke-play against the new ball and was the only real positive when India batted. He would have been relieved that he got to the milestone on Sunday. In 28 previous international innings across the three formats, he had managed to get a fifty-plus score just twice.
Yet, just when he was exorcising the devils of a forgettable season, Rahul froze in his track as he saw Jason Behrendorff fling himself to his left at point and stop a powerful square drive by Rishabh Pant. It meant that the Delhi batsman had to turn back and make a futile bid to return to safety. Behrendorff’s quick flick to the wicket-keeper caught Pant way out of the crease.
The situation needed Rahul to buckle down to batting through the Indian innings, more so since Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s batting is now apparently on the decline and it was not going to be easy for anyone to walk in and dominate the Australian attack. Had he done that, Rahul would have seen India secure a larger total than the 126 it managed.
Yet, the manner in which Rahul gifted his wicket away during the consolidation phase of the Indian innings did not do him or his side any good. His was the first of the three wickets that India lost in the span of 17 deliveries with just eight runs accrued to the team. The momentum had swung decisively. Nathan Coulter-Nile bowled beautifully but it was Rahul's shot that changed the game.
It would be easy to target Dhoni for being unable to find the rhythm when striking the ball. However, he was left with just the tail-enders once Dinesh Karthik and Krunal Pandya were prised out by Coulter-Nile’s nagging accuracy. Neither of them had a sound plan when faced with the task of batting with Dhoni for a few overs before an assault could be launched.
Yet, even if the track slowed down and stroke-play became tougher, that there was just one boundary hit in the final 11 overs is a fair reflection as much of India’s batting woes as of Australian bowlers’ understanding of the length they needed to bowl. Coulter-Nile and Pat Cummins were on top of their game and made life difficult for the batsmen.
While India opted to rest Shikhar Dhawan – not just to give Rahul the chance to open the innings in a T20 international after quite a while, but also perhaps to accommodate Dinesh Karthik ahead of Vijay Shankar in the middle-order – they did not try to see if having skipper Virat Kohli bat lower than at the one-drop spot would work in the team’s favour.
During the chase, Short played the perfect second fiddle to Glenn Maxwell who counter-attacked with audacious strokes. It did not seem to matter to Maxwell that he walked in when the scoreboard read five for two after Marcus Stoinis was run out and skipper Aaron Finch was trapped in front by Jasprit Bumrah.
India fought hard to try and regain lost ground, but their batsmen had left the team with too few to defend. That the home side took the game into the final delivery spoke of the team’s intent to make Australia earn a victory. But then intent alone was never going to be enough, not after Maxwell created and made the most of scoring opportunities.
Australia's problems against spin bowling surfaced again but on Sunday they could breathe just that bit easy after India had posted at least 20 runs fewer than it seemed headed for at the halfway stage of its innings. Even a great penultimate over by Bumrah in which he conceded two runs and dismissed Handscomb and Coulter-Nile was not enough for India to win.
Paceman Umesh Yadav, who had started with a 13-run over, conceded 14 in the final over to let Richardson and Cummins pinch victory. The see-saw route that the game took in the final stages allowed the fans in the stadium shout themselves hoarse in the hope that India would haul itself over the line for an improbable win. But that was not to be.