The biggest take away from Sunday’s match between India and Pakistan, besides of course the crushing win over Sarfaraz Ahmed and company, was the magnificent take-no-prisoner approach of India’s second rung of cricketers.
The seasoned stars, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni and Bhuvneshwar Kumar were always expected to soak in the pressure of an India-Pakistan encounter and come up with the goods. But it was the guts and glory performance of the support cast, KL Rahul, Kuldeep Yadav, Vijay Shankar and Hardik Pandya that turned heads.
It brought to the fore an old adage that India-Pakistan World Cup encounters separate the men from the boys.
In the 1992 World Cup clash it was a young 18-year-old Sachin Tendulkar who stood up to be counted with a mature half century. He went on to become a world beater after that.
In 2003 a young Yuvraj Singh who later turned out to be the huge star of the 2011 World Cup, stunned Pakistan’s experienced pace bowlers Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar with an unbeaten 53-ball half century that made light of an extremely tough target.
Sunday’s win at Old Trafford, although in the end it seemed so easy, was one such career defining moment for the likes of Rahul, Kuldeep, Shankar and Pandya.
Take the case of Rahul. He took first strike to shield Rohit Sharma who has had trouble with Mohammad Amir’s inswing early in the innings. Rahul ensured that he played out the Pakistani pace bowling ace’s first over and by the time Sharma took strike in the third over the initial sluggishness of his footwork was no longer an issue.
The beauty of Rahul’s batting lay in his blunting of Pakistan’s new ball attack. What this did for the comfort of the rest of the batting line-up was incalculable. Sharma, once he became convinced that Rahul was not going anywhere and would back his play, batted freely. The pair had their moments in running between the wickets but the 136-run opening stand took the pressure off the rest of the line-up.
The partnership ensured that the Pakistanis were a lot more defensive against Virat Kohli at the start of his innings. Rahul’s 57 off 78 balls might have been slow batting. But in terms of keeping bowlers at bay it was just what the team wanted.
It was a similar priceless ability to rise to the occasion that featured the efforts of Pandya, Shankar and Kuldeep too.
Pandya’s cameo injected urgency into the batting even as it brought attention to his ability to strike fluently in tense situations.
Make no mistake, Rohit Sharma (140 off 113 balls, 14x4, 3 x6) and Kohli (77; 65b, 7x4) were the undoubted stars. But cricket is a team sport. The whole team needs to put its shoulder to the wheel for ensuring success.
This is where India succeeded beyond expectations. While focus was naturally on big stars and their star performances, it was the solid work of others that guaranteed the win.
Who can forget that magic first ball delivered under immense pressure by Shankar. He was abruptly called in to bowl when Bhuvneshwar broke down after sending four deliveries of his third over. Shankar did not have time to mentally prepare himself nor even to sufficiently loosen up. Yet he became a hero when he hit the ‘gold spot’ with his very first delivery. The ball trapped Imam-ul-Haq in front and firmly neutralised any Pakistani hopes to convert Bhuvi’s injury to their advantage.
Another cricketer whose performance would have warmed the cockles of the captain’s heart was Kuldeep. The left arm spinner, still very young in age, was in tears in IPL just a month ago. His confidence was shattered after the bludgeoning he got in T20 cricket.
Hence Sunday was special for him. Conventional wisdom called for his place going to pacer Mohammed Shami as the Pakistanis were reputed to be wonderful players of spin.
But Kohli not only retained him, but got him to bowl at a critical phase of the innings when the Pakistani second wicket pair of Fakhar Zaman (62) and Babar Azam (48) was piecing together an important partnership.
In a rare show of guile and confidence, Kuldeep looked at his aggressive best as he bowled his heart out. He dismissed both Fakhar and Babar and totally disrupted the Pakistani innings. They never recovered as India coasted to a 89 runs (under DLS method) win in the rain-affected match.
The win, while it was fashioned by super stars Sharma and Kohli, was certainly set up by the young brigade of Rahul, Kuldeep, Pandya and Shankar.
It is their stepping up to be counted when under pressure that has brought a new spring to the Indian team’s step. Surely with the stars firing and youngsters absorbing pressure and chipping in brilliantly, Indian cricket is in a good place. Let’s raise a toast to that.