There was no dearth for irony on Tuesday night in Pune as India, after encountering one flat pitch after another in Australia, were welcomed back home with a green track with seam, bounce and carry – the whole nine yards. MS Dhoni’s homecoming after a resounding 3-0 win against Australia was on conditions not very different from an English summer.
And hungover from that Australian sojourn, Indian batting lineup surrendered meekly against the inexperienced Sri Lanka bowling attack, folding for 101 runs as the unheralded visitors cruised home with five wickets in hand in the first of the three T20Is.
Inexperienced. The word cannot be stressed enough. Kasun Rajitha, the man-of-the-match for his three-wicket burst, was playing his first ever international match for Sri Lanka. Dasun Shanaka was playing his second. Dushmantha Chameera, playing his fourth T20I, was the spearhead of the attack.
Shanaka, for instance, had taken just two wickets in his previous 26 T20 appearances. “I never expected to see such a pitch in India. Most people back home, know about my batting only. But today I showed what I can achieve with the ball.”
Sri Lanka did not have a mystery spinner in their ranks, but there was enough mystery about this unknown pace attack to stun the star-studded Indian batting lineup.
In his pitch report, Sunil Gavaskar confidently said that the grass would merely help keep the pitch together. He quipped that the spectators should wear helmets because there were going to be ‘plenty of 4s and 6s’.
Turns out he was not the only one to read the pitch completely wrong.
But that happens all the time in cricket. You don’t always get what you see. But what should have happened for India is some sort of recalibration after losing Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane in the very first over of the match that saw Rajitha work up good pace, get early movement and carry, and ‘spongy bounce’ that Dhoni spoke about after match.
That initial setback gave the Indian middle-order and eventually, the lower order a crucial chance to do something they rarely got a chance to in Australia – spend some time in the middle.
“What has been good in this series is how the top order has consistently performed. It is very difficult,” Dhoni said after the T20 whitewash in Australia. “If you talk about five, six, seven and the lower-down batsmen, apart from that one game [Fourth ODI in Canberra], we were just doing the sweeping job of playing 10-12 deliveries, or 15 deliveries maximum. The top order did really well in this tournament for us.”
That did not happen in Pune. Not even close. Suresh Raina walked in with 19 overs to spare, Yuvraj Singh with 15, Dhoni and Hardik Pandya with 12, Ravindra Jadeja with 11. Those five batsmen combined to face a sum total of 51 deliveries.
Even after the double-blow in the first over, Raina and Shikhar Dhawan kept going for the mighty heaves – cross-batted, no less – instead of trying to build a partnership. Sure, they managed some meaty blows that cleared the ropes with ease, but Dhawan’s dismissal and Raina’s reprieves (two dropped catches) in his brief stay made it clear that the Indian batsmen wanted to hit their way out of trouble. Yuvraj too, after hitting his second ball for six, fell to a very ordinary pull shot. Dhoni got a stinging bouncer the second ball he faced - but his pull shot was half-hearted and rushed.
Without taking anything away from a spirited bowling performance by Sri Lanka, what should disappoint the team most was the fact that there was no attempt from the Indian middle and lower-order to even stitch together a partnership. It took Ravichandran Ashwin and Ashish Nehra (Ashish Nehra!) to bring some sanity to the proceedings, playing out a few dots, rotating strike and taking India barely past 100.
"This was not a 160 wicket. This was more of a 135-140 kind of wicket because there was some help for the fast bowlers. Our shot selection should have been better. Looking at the positives, everybody got a chance to bat today.”
Twenty20 is a lottery, in case you had not heard that before. Form and reputation counts for very little in a format where things can change quicker than the time it takes for Jadeja or Raina to finish bowling an over. In such a format, it is paramount for players to think on their feet and adjust to the conditions. Indian batting order, for the second time running in a home T20I, failed to do that. After the shambles against South Africa in Cuttack, it was more of the same in Pune. It’s all well and good to have a top-order in prime form, but when they fail – and they will, every now and then – the rest must be able to pick up the slack.
Sure enough, not every track in this series or the World T20 for that matter, will be as English as the Pune wicket, but Dhoni, Raina and Co would do well to make sure there isn’t a repeat of what happened in the first T20I. This should serve as an ideal wake up call, ahead of the must-win second match in Ranchi on Friday.
Watch cricket expert Ayaz Memon's (@cricketwallah) analysis of the Indian innings below:
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