Not for nothing is it said that cricket is a game played in the space between the ears. The T20 game might call for brute power and aggressive batting, but what was witnessed at Old Trafford during the course of India's emphatic eight-wicket win was something else altogether.
Both India and opponents England wanted to set the tone for the long and arduous series by stamping their authority over the other in the opener. Thus, it quickly became a mind game with both teams seeking to gain early psychological advantage.
England packed their line-up with 'power' batsmen, all young, fearless and keen on blasting the opposition bowlers out of the park. They had just come off brutalising the Australian bowlers for a mammoth 481 in 50 overs and hence were capable of causing extreme damage.
Simultaneously, England were also well aware that India’s trump cards were the two wrist-spinners and thus sought to dent their confidence very early on the tour.
India meanwhile had their own bag of mind games to play and hence opted to bowl first and unleash Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav as quickly as possible, the flat batting strip notwithstanding.
The setting for the match and the unmistakable desire to steal a march over the opposition very early on the tour was reminiscent of the memorable Shane Warne-Sachin Tendulkar battle for supremacy during Australia’s tour to India a generation earlier.
At that time, Warne was bent on pulling down Tendulkar a notch or two in his own backyard which was renowned for its spin-friendly pitches. If that had happened, Tendulkar’s aura would have been shattered forever.
But just like Warne had the will to win, so too did Tendulkar. He practised for long hours on scuffed pitches against leg-spinners in baking hot conditions, and when Warne arrived, he was prepared to push back as resoundingly.
Tendukar’s domination of the Australian maestro was total and India did as they pleased through the series.
On Tuesday, England attempted a similar ploy to gain a stranglehold on the tourists.
In the last T20I engagement between the teams in Bengaluru last year, Chahal had routed England with a haul of six wickets for 25 runs. England decided they would dominate him and the other wrist-spinner before they could settle down to unleash their bag of tricks.
The duo not only possessed a mesmerising aura, but had left a mental scar on many an international batsman. Their variations and attacking mindset was unlike anything batsmen had previously encountered in spinners.
These two were unafraid to toss the ball up or experiment with spin, line and length, in a bid to prise out batsmen.
England’s openers Jos Butler (69; 46b, 8x4, 2x6) and Jason Roy (30; 20b, 5x4) set off in a blistering pace to register the 50-run partnership in five overs. By then, despite field restrictions, India skipper Virat Kohli had already introduced leg-spinner Chahal.
This was like waving a red rag at an enraged bull. The England batsmen, Butler in particular, went after his bowling.
But once powerplay field restrictions were lifted, and Kuldeep was introduced, the game took a dramatic turn.
England were sailing at 95 for 1 in 11 overs when Kuldeep, who had given Alex Hales a torrid time, fooled him with a googly. But it was in his next over that Kuldeep spread absolute panic in the English ranks.
They were coasting at 106 for 2 in 13 overs and looked set for a total around 200 when Kuldeep disrupted the innings in sensational fashion.
He bamboozled a trio of brilliant batsmen — Eoin Morgan, Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root — with his mix of googly and Chinaman and in a matter of just four deliveries, demolished England’s aspirations of making a fist of this match.
The hosts never really recovered. Kuldeep ended with 5 for 24 as if to remind England that if Chahal didn’t get them, he would.
Importantly for India, Kuldeep’s performance and the manner in which he repeatedly deceived the English batsmen left them bewildered. It reached a stage where they were unsure whether to go after his bowling or just defend. It made no difference. He had already stamped his authority on the match.
Consequently, the psychological battering would have left a scar on the England batsmen, something India will seek to exploit throughout the series.
Later, defending 159, England’s bowlers were taken to the cleaners by KL Rahul. He made a mockery of their pace and spin attack by carving the bowlers to all parts of the ground with a scintillating display of strokeplay.
Rahul’s unbeaten century (101*; 55 balls, 10x4, 5x6) had not only given India a winning start, but importantly, Kuldeep and he have given England plenty to worry about right from the start.