Bangladesh were written off well before they had even landed on Indian soil, given all the recent troubles with their board back home and the assumption of them finding it difficult to adjust themselves mentally after such drama.
The match nearly didn’t happen either, given the deadly blanket of smog that has engulfed the national capital in particular and most parts of northern India in general.
Yet, Bangladesh managed to notch up a memorable victory in the first T20I against India in New Delhi on Sunday, finally triumphing over their neighbours in the shortest format after having failed eight times before — a couple of them in the last over.
Sunday’s encounter too went down to the final over of the day, but there was no feasible way for the ‘Men in Blue’ to walk away victors unless the ‘Tigers’ suffered a collective brain-fade. India had missed enough opportunities throughout the game, and a couple of dropped chances in the business end of the chase virtually sealed it in the visitors’ favour.
So who really was the Match ka mujrim? — a term so endearingly used by certain sections of the Indian vernacular media — for Team India’s defeat on Sunday? Rishabh Pant for one seems to be copping most of the blame at the moment.
The Delhi keeper-batsman had one of the most forgettable days in his cricketing career, both with the bat as well as behind the stumps. The flashy youngster has been perceived as MS Dhoni’s successor once the veteran finally decides to hang up his boots.
However, his confidence appears to be shaken of late. Not only has he lost the keeper’s spot in the Test side to the recently-returned Wriddhiman Saha, who had a brilliant series against South Africa, he has also been at the receiving end of the team management’s ire particularly for his shot-selection. Coach Ravi Shastri, in particular, even went on to hint at giving him a ‘rap on his knuckles’ in the context of his shot-selection in a recent interview.
That lack of confidence was evident in Pant’s innings on Sunday. On a wicket that was slightly on the slower side throughout the evening much like the ones used in the Indian Premier League (IPL), Pant never appeared settled at the crease while also having communication problems with his batting partners.
On-air commentator Sunil Gavaskar, in particular, sounded furious after a mix-up between him and Shikhar Dhawan resulted in the latter falling nine short of his half-century. “Sold him down the river,” thundered the former Indian batting icon as Dhawan wore a disappointed look on his face while trudging back to the dressing room.
The Delhi Capitals keeper had the opportunity to make up for it by taking charge for the final phase of the Indian innings. Playing his natural game was the need of the hour; Pant managed to hit three fours but was eventually dismissed off Shafiul Islam’s bowling in the penultimate over, getting caught at long on off a miscued slog, once again failing to make an impact when it mattered the most.
The clamour to get him dropped only grew after that knock, and with Kerala wicketkeeper-batsman Sanju Samson — who recently struck a memorable double-ton in the Vijay Hazare Trophy — waiting in the wings, things have got only more difficult for him.
Pant the wicket-keeper didn’t have a great day either, particularly when he convinced captain Rohit Sharma to go for a review following a caught-behind appeal against Soumya Sarkar off Yuzvendra Chahal’s bowling — only for Ultra-Edge to show a flat-line at the time of the ball going past the inside edge. The same over saw the Indians miss two LBW dismissal chances that were turned down by the same umpire which, had they been reviewed, could’ve witnessed Mushfiqur’s innings ending in a single-digit score.
Dhoni’s magic with the DRS highlights how important a wicket-keeper is when it comes to making such decisions, almost playing a central role, and Pant still has a lot of catching up to do in this area even though his glovework has improved steadily since conceding a barrage of byes in England last year.
What Pant certainly did not deserve were the chants of “Dhoni! Dhoni!” by the spectators at the recently-renamed Arun Jaitley Stadium. Sure, he deserves some stick for his sloppy performance on the field, but that should be restricted to a pep talk with seniors in the dressing room or in the team hotel rather than from fans. Every cricketer goes through a bad patch in his career, and Pant has exhibited the ability to come back strong from such lows in the past.
And let’s not forget, there were other chinks in the armour as well as far as the Indian batting performance went. Had it not been for some fireworks in the last two overs of the innings from Krunal Pandya (who would later drop Mushfiqur in the 18th over, a fatal blow to India’s hopes) and Washington Sundar, the match wouldn’t even have gone to the last over in the first place.
Sunday’s result once again highlighted how crucial the top three’s contribution is towards an Indian victory. Skipper Rohit, KL Rahul, batting in Virat Kohli’s usual spot of No 3, and Shreyas Iyer failed to convert their positive starts into bigger scores. Dhawan looked good at his home ground and deserved to get a bigger score, only for him to walk back after a miscalculated call for a non-existent second run from his partner.
Debutant Shivam Dube, carrying a lot of expectations with him in the build-up to the World T20 next year, fell victim to all-rounder Afif Hossain’s brilliance to depart for just 1. Dube was later handed the responsibility of bowling the final over of the Bangladesh innings with just four left for the Tigers to win, but by then Khaleel Ahmed’s expensive penultimate over had already done the damage.
There certainly are some flaws in Team India’s T20I game plan, and the problem seems more highlighted when they are defending a total, as was also the case in the nine-wicket hammering at the hands of the Proteas in September.
Thankfully for the Indian team, they have two more games in this series, and plenty of T20I fixtures over the next one year to iron out those flaws. While Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah and other personnel not featuring in this series are match-winners in every sense, others have to step up to the task and make it count when the team needs them the most.
Let’s see if Pant gets the crowd to chant his name at Rajkot come Thursday.