“It's pretty obvious that our record hasn't been great batting first, and we're looking to see what we can do to put up better totals.” - KL Rahul
“Batting first, we've been too tight and hesitant, should we go for it, should we not.” - Virat Kohli
At the Wankhede, on Wednesday night, India decided to go for it. Finally.
It was fitting, poetic even, that it arrived as it did; three-and-a-half years ago, at this very ground, against the same opposition, India had suffered arguably their greatest T20I heartbreak and learned a harsh lesson about this format of cricket.
However, in the 52 matches that they have played since that World T20 semi-final against West Indies on 31 March 2016, India had displayed little evidence of having really worked upon the lessons from that night at this iconic venue. There was, then and now, an aspect of India’s 20-20 game that lay in sunken slumber.
That elephant, well visible to everyone, inside or outside the room, went by the name ‘batting first’. In seven matches this year where they had taken first strike, India’s average total was 158; six of those seven matches resulted in losses (in contrast, they have won six out of eight games while chasing).
And it’s not any newfound hole; prior to Wednesday, India, on average, took nearly 10 innings to post a 200-plus total while batting first in T20Is involving the teams presently ranked in the top-10. Of that lot, only Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and England possessed a worse conversion rate.
And then, out walked Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul, with a quite-possessed Virat Kohli waiting in the dugout.
At the end of the sixth over, the scorecard read 72/0. Only twice in the last 10 years — over the course of 107 games — had India hit more runs in the Powerplay.
At the end of the 20th, the scorecard screamed 240/3. Only twice in their entire T20I history — 126 games — had India hit more runs in an innings.
In that ill-fated contest three years earlier, India, on paper, didn't do too badly, but you knew, even before the West Indians strode out to begin their run-chase, that 192/2 was a somewhat peculiar-looking score for a T20.
India did put on a certain type of clinic, of strike rotation, of running between the wickets, of minimising wasted resources. Only 26 of the 120 legitimate deliveries faced by the Indian batsmen were dots; the corresponding figure for the West Indies innings was 47.
However, when it came to runs scored off boundaries, the men from the Caribbean out-smashed their opponents by 54 runs, tonking 20 fours and 11 sixes in a chase they sealed with two balls to spare.
On that Wankhede evening, India had registered 17 fours and four sixes. On this Wankhede evening, India hammered 19 fours and 16 sixes.
172 runs in boundaries. There have only ever been six innings in T20Is featuring the top-10 nations — and there have been 503 such innings in all — where a side has accrued more runs through boundaries.
It helped, of course, that India had the memory of coming up short, the way they did, that last time against the West Indies at the Wankhede.
It helped, of course, having the knowledge that totals are rarely safe at this ground — at that same World T20 in 2016, England had chased down 230 against South Africa.
It also helped, certainly, that the three men at the heart of the carnage, each had their own love affair with the Wankhede — Rohit has had his mountain of runs and success with the Mumbai Indians; Rahul’s last two knocks here, both in the IPL, were 94 off 60 and 100* off 64; Kohli’s last three international innings at the ground were 89* in a T20I, 235 in a Test and 121 in an ODI.
More than anything else, though, it helped that India had been pushed into enough of a corner to know that their approach when trying to set targets in T20Is was outdated and out-of-sync with the game.
On that ill-fated night out at the Wankhede in 2016, while being taught a lesson, India had also been outdone by variables that are impossible to predict.
Match-winner Lendl Simmons was twice dismissed off a no-ball, before also having the good fortune of seeing Ravindra Jadeja kiss the boundary rope in the process of completing a catch.
On this most recent night out at the Wankhede, India were the beneficiaries of a few unlikely occurrences. Had it not been for an injury, man-of-the-match Rahul would have probably still been warming the bench and seeing Shikhar Dhawan — T20I strike rate 128 — open the batting for his team.
As for Kohli, he may be the generation’s best batsman, but nothing from his T20 past remotely suggested that a blitz of this extent was in the offing.
Prior to this series, Kohli had hit more than three sixes only twice in 67 T20I innings; prior to this game, Kohli had never finished an innings of more than 11 balls with a strike rate above 200. In this instance, the Indian skipper hit seven sixes and struck at a rate of 241.37 — both career-best figures.
These variables — be it the ones that went against India in 2016, or the ones that came in their favour this time — are the sort teams don’t read too much into, and rightly so. What teams do take with utmost seriousness is intent — in particular, this team.
“We had spoken a lot, it was about going out on the field and executing,” Kohli said at the post-match presentation. Of course, India had discussed this ailment — batting first in T20Is — on numerous occasions, in just this year alone.
It was discussed when a total of 190/4 against Australia fell woefully short thanks to a Glenn Maxwell special at Bengaluru, or when an all-guns-blazing philosophy backfired spectacularly at that same ground seven months later to result in the abject total of 134/9 against South Africa, or when Bangladesh were allowed a maiden T20I win over India after needing less than 150 to chase down at Delhi last month.
One fine day, the talks, the trials and the tactics came to fruition.
There have been nearly 11000 T20s played since the introduction of the crash-and-bang format in 2003, but Wednesday night at the Wankhede was the first-ever instance of three different batsmen making 70 or more runs for a team in the same innings.
India had played 125 T20Is before this, batting first in 59 of them, but Wednesday night at the Wankhede felt like a first.
Three years, eight months and 11 days on from that last Wankhede night, India might just have woken up.
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