So near yet so far. That was the story of India’s loss in the high-scoring third T20I to New Zealand in Hamilton on Sunday by a wafer-thin four-run margin and the series by a 1-2 difference. Yet, in the absence of the acknowledged master of the chase, Virat Kohli, a collective effort saw the side stay in with a chance of winning till the last two deliveries.
In fact, the contributions from less experienced hands like Vijay Shankar, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya and Krunal Pandya outweighed that of the stars like Shikhar Dhawan, skipper Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni. It would have been fitting had the free-striking Dinesh Karthik, who had helped perk up the chase, took the team over the finish line.
It is this ability of the other batsmen stepping up the plate after failure of the top-order that would have caught the attention of the team management during the game. The show of character in taking the chase within a boundary hit was India’s biggest positive, a combination of defiance and determination showing up well.
There will be some who will pan the bowlers – Kuldeep Yadav, playing his first game in the series, was an exception on Sunday with figures of two for 26 in his four overs – but that would be to overlook the flat deck that played no mean role in the tall scores. New Zealand, eager to punish India’s decision to field first, got on top of the attack and was relentless throughout.
Of course, with the attack having found its mojo in the last game, it would not have been unfair to expect it to continue showing that it could adapt to conditions and be on top of the home batsmen. That did not happen until Kuldeep Yadav’s wrist spin came into effect. The three fast-medium bowlers and left-arm spinner Krunal Pandya were rendered quite ineffective.
New Zealand’s top-order batsmen, Tim Seifert, Colin Munro, Kane Williamson and Colin de Grandhomme pounced on and created scoring opportunities to fire the side past the 200-run mark for the second time in three games and challenge India’s batting line-up to chase a big score again. That three of them scored with a strike rate of almost 180 tells a tale of its own.
Yet, with the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 in England and Wales drawing closer, India would not be as concerned by the series defeat as it would be about the fielding lapses that surfaced on Sunday. The Indian team has set the bar pretty high when it comes to its work on the field, but its quality dipped perceptibly. It could have made the difference on the fate of the game.
The charge for victory was primarily incumbent on the openers Shikhar Dhawan and skipper Rohit Sharma. This thought was to be entrenched in their minds and they needed to relish the pressure and provide a momentum in the chase to the other batsmen to follow. But faced with a left-arm spinner in the first over, the left-handed opener invited his early exit by finding the fielder in the deep when attempting to slog Mitchell Santner.
After Dhawan's exit, the onus was on the captain to mastermind the chase. But he would not be pleased with how it panned out for him. On a day when his stroke-play could have fueled a successful chase, Rohit Sharma was unable to find the rhythm and could hardly get going. And he would have found it rather frustrating.
It is not often that Rohit Sharma scores 30 runs in a T20I without striking a six. In fact, Sunday presented him with the first such experience. His 38 off 32 deliveries increased the pressure on the other batsmen. He batted through 14 overs and left India needing 12 runs an over off the final six. Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni’s departure in the next two overs almost guaranteed a New Zealand win.
Of course, India could draw some consolation from the fact that the other batsmen, especially Vijay Shankar and Rishabh Pant, took upon themselves the task of scoring briskly. And from the fact that Dinesh Karthik and Krunal Pandya added an unbeaten 63 runs in 4.4 overs. That they did not lose hope and belief – and, therefore, interest in the chase – was heart-warming.
Dinesh Karthik surprisingly refused a single off the third ball of the last over, especially after being foxed off the previous delivery by Tim Southee. The two dot balls that he played in the final over did not make for good viewing, undoing some fine striking by the seventh-wicket pair. Worse, the single off the fourth ball left India needing 13 runs of two deliveries.
In the end, India played a five more dot balls than New Zealand and scored four runs fewer than the home side. Had the dot balls been reduced, the gap would have been easily closed and India would have returned home from the long tour of the Antipodes without losing any of the five bilateral engagements with Australia and New Zealand.
On a tour in which India drew the T20I series with Australia 1-1, won the epoch-making Test and one-day series Down Under before claiming the five-match ODI series in New Zealand, the defeat in the final game has only reinforced an old belief that you cannot win them all. On Sunday, India lost the match and the series alright but its batsmen gave the team reason for cheer.