Eden Park is paradise on earth for batsmen. India are masters of limited overs run-chases.
In the last six T20Is at this ground coming into Friday’s series opener, runs had been scored (read: tonked) at 9.77 per over. Two years back, Australia had completed a world-record chase of 244 with seven balls to spare; in the most recent game, in November, New Zealand and England had shared 292 runs in just 22 overs.
Since falling short in the World Cup semi-final against Friday’s opponent, India had won nine out of nine limited overs contests batting second (three ODIs, six T20Is); since 2017, they had lost just four out of 23 T20Is while chasing.
So, a successful chase of 200-plus - as imposing as it may sound – for this team, at this ground, isn’t quite something to go parading about in the streets. And while the adjudicators may have handed the individual honours to Shreyas Iyer, the more result-influencing performances for his side, arguably, had come in the first half of the game – when Jasprit Bumrah and Yuzvendra Chahal combined to give just 63 runs from their eight overs, with two wickets to boot.
But if you don’t look solely through the prism of one game, and refrain from being myopic, there were encouraging signs aplenty in Iyer’s match-sealing 58 not out off 29 balls to take India home in the opening game of their five-match series versus the Kiwis.
Even still, let’s first look at the match scenario. The dimensions of Eden Park meant 204 wasn’t the scariest of targets, and India’s task had indeed become measurably easier owing to KL Rahul’s continuing heroics from the top. But when Rahul and Virat Kohli fell in the space of eight deliveries, India’s win probability, as per CricViz data, fell from 67% to 31%. And even though the required rate didn’t once touch 11-per-over (and only briefly went above 10), India did know well enough of their longer-than-required tail, even with Ravindra Jadeja and Shardul Thakur at seven and eight.
There was an element of calm needed - it is a quality that has been attributed to Iyer in his years climbing the ranks in Indian cricket. But what about being unsettled? That can play even on the calmest minds.
Comfortable as the conditions may have been, and cruising as Iyer’s own performances were through 2019, the 25-year-old could well have had his iffy start to this calendar year on his mind – his most recent knock was a flowing 35-ball 44 not out in the series-decider against Australia at Bengaluru, but the two innings before had perhaps exposed chinks in the armour, against pace and spin alike; Iyer had returned cardinally poor scores of 7(17) and 4(9) at Rajkot and Mumbai, respectively.
Add to that the constant chopping and changing that has become norm in the Indian middle-order, and the competition for spots in the race to the T20 World Cup, and it’s not as if this was a situation devoid of pressure (as their most recent captains have oft iterated, there’s no such thing for an Indian cricketer).
Calm aside, Iyer has also been hailed for his ‘game sense’ through his formative years playing in Mumbai – and that was on offer at Eden Park, and potentially more pleasing than even some of the silken shots he stroked through his second T20I half-century.
Having walked out with the scorecard reading a healthy 115/2 in 10 overs, the number four was patient in front of Mitchell Santner, nudging two runs from three balls. But when Kohli fell off the first ball of the 12th over, perhaps fearing a shift in momentum, Iyer immediately decided to neutralize the blow and expansively drove successive deliveries from Blair Tickner on the up – six off two balls, and Shivam Dube was allowed the luxury of not needing to do anything silly from the word go.
A few minutes – and boundaries – later, Dube did do something silly, and at the end of the 14th over, the equation read 60 from six overs. Hamish Bennett followed up with tight lines in the 15th, but Iyer – now joined in the middle by Manish Pandey – was wise enough to prevent wastage, and India were able to claw out seven runs.
The equation came down to 53 needed off 30 balls, and Iyer, at this stage, was on 16 off 12. The match didn’t eventually need a 20th over. The clinching partnership read 62 off 34 balls – Pandey’s contribution to it was 14 off 12, Iyer’s 48 off 22.
The Indian number four didn’t shy from recognizing and respecting the possible threats of Santner and Ish Sodhi, scoring 11 from the nine deliveries he faced from the Kiwi spinners. The pacers were a different matter, though – 47 from 20 balls, laced with four fours and three sixes. All three of Iyer’s sixes came of Tim Southee, as he took the attack to the leader of the New Zealand bowling pack, smoking 25 from eight.
Not to forget, Iyer’s 29-ball stay at the crease contained only four dot balls. And there, perhaps, lay the biggest learning – and victory – from the day for India.
Because T20 ‘smarts’ don’t quite exist the way you’d imagine they would for the country with the format’s premier competition (arguably). In just their last T20I in New Zealand, a year ago, India had fallen short by four runs chasing 213 in a series-decider – the visitors had hit three more sixes than their Kiwi counterparts, but they were also guilty of eating up 34 dots (to New Zealand’s 29).
Friday’s outing also displays individual correction to please the match-winner and his camp: from the start of IPL 2019 till the end of the year, Iyer had batted 32 times – and finished with strike rates of 135-plus on only eight occasions.
That Iyer’s exploits came in a game where Rohit Sharma failed and Virat Kohli scored his 45 runs at a below-par strike rate of 140, adds another sweet dimension from an Indian perspective – you don’t see a lot of Indian victories in that blue jersey when these two are on the wrong side of the scoresheet.
A successful chase of 204 with an over to spare at a batting paradise? Not a surprise. By chase-masters? Unsurprising, again. But the fact that someone finished the game off, in style, without the support of ‘seniors’, while batting at No 4 is truly heartening! Indian cricket could get used to that again.
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