Rohit Sharma was able to stamp his presence in the second Twenty20 International against New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland on Friday with a characteristic show both as leader and as opening batsman. The Indian captain, who became the leading run-scorers in T20Is on his way to the explosive half-century, would be delighted with the team response in a do-or-die game.
Rohit's 50 set the stage for the other batsmen to carry on in clinical fashion as India secured a comfortable seven-wicket victory in the penultimate over of the game. Rohit dominated the 79-run opening stand with Shikhar Dhawan who enjoyed watching Rohit's pyrotechnics from the other end of the pitch. The pair showed yet again how crucial it is to India's success in limited-over cricket, perhaps even realising how early separation can wreck the team's plans.
Not only Rohit exposed New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson's reluctance to seek early wickets with his clean hitting but also his decision to make Rishabh Pant bat at the fall of the first wicket was laudable. It was a shift in tactics from the last game in which Vijay Shankar walked in at one-drop.
Obviously, the move paid the team some dividends, the young left-hander slamming an unbeaten 40 off 28 deliveries. To be sure, he took his time to show an assurance at the crease during the 30-run partnership with Shankar, but he was a different batsman when at the crease with the vastly seasoned Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
It must be seen as an early indication of the team's plans to have Pant at No 3 in the World Cup ahead of Virat Kohli to ensure that experience available in the line-up is distributed evenly rather than be top-heavy. And if Pant was aware of such a possibility, he showed no signs of being under pressure as he laid bare his lusty stroke-play on the table.
Of course, batting was not the only area where India made improvements from the last game. The most impressive part of the bowling was an acute understanding of the lengths to bowl in a ground where the straight boundaries are shorter than those square of the pitch. It was important for the quicker bowlers to hit a length that would not invite the batsmen to play the expansive drives.
That they rediscovered the rhythm and executed the plan was an added bonus. The three-pronged fast-medium attack — Bhuvneshwar Kumar, left-armer Khaleel Ahmed and Hardik Pandya — did well to rally from the pasting they got in Wellington, running in with purpose and landing the ball in the optimum areas.
Krunal Pandya's effective use of the arm ball got him two of the three scalps, even if he could consider himself lucky that the TV umpire Shaun Haig ignored hotspot and agreed with the umpire's decision to rule Daryl Mitchell out leg before wicket. There were no such doubts when the left-arm spinner beat Williamson's attempt to pull the delivery with another armer.
Of course, New Zealand's Colin Grandhomme salvaged things a bit during his 77-run fifth-wicket stand with Ross Taylor but he fell in the 16th over and the home side lost its way pretty quickly. India sustained the good work through the 20 overs, conceding just 37 runs in the final five overs and picking up four wickets. They had done well to restrict New Zealand to a sub-par score.
Despite not being vastly experienced, Khaleel did his chances of securing a World Cup berth no damage with a mature approach to bowling on Friday. He picked up two scalps in the final over of the innings, one from over the wicket and the other from around the wicket to finish with the best figures among the three fast-medium bowlers on view.
As the team heads to Hamilton for its final game of the tour of the Antipodes, India will look to win that match so that it can return home with a splendid record across all three formats. The drawn T20I series in Australia at the start of the tour was followed by a maiden Test series win Down Under as well as victories in the ODI series in Australia and New Zealand.
Of course, it could be unfair to think of the final game of Twenty20 series as part of the team's preparations for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 but with the big event drawing closer, all limited-over matches have to be seen as part of the journey towards that goal. It is imperative, therefore, for the team to continue to do all things against that backdrop.
Now, that would mean the side resists any temptation to ring in changes in the XI and give those who have sat out the last two games a single opportunity to peddle their wares. It must back the same set of players to come good in the crunch game and they must use it as an opportunity to sustain the winning mindset that the team has embraced.
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