Asia Cup 2016: First the storm, then the calm as Kohli, Dhawan and Dhoni script the perfect chase
The sixth Asia Cup title and Dhoni's fourth multi-national tournament win ensured India's warm-up to the ICC World T20 has been near-flawless.
"Mahendra Singh Dhoni showed he wants to be in charge, that he wants to take control of tight situations": Watch Ayaz Memon's analysis above, of India's win in Asia Cup final on Sunday.
The setting before the start of the Asia Cup final between India and Bangladesh on Sunday can be aptly described in one word -- stormy. There was the metaphorical storm, cooked up presumably in some corner of a geeky Bangladesh fan's house as he or she decided to drum up the hype with a decidedly tasteless meme involving Taskin and Dhoni that nearly broke the internet.
The other, more pertinent and considerably more threatening storm hit the Sher-e-Bangla stadium minutes before the match was scheduled to start, plunging the ground into darkness and sending the covers flying in all directions. But for the miraculous efforts of the ground staff in Mirpur, the Asia Cup final would have been a story of the two storms and a shared trophy.
For Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his league of extraordinary men, first came the storm, then the calm.
Having won the toss in a reduced, 15-over-a-side match, the Indian captain may have been a shade disappointed to concede 120 runs despite two of his bowlers conceding less than five runs per over. Ravichandran Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah were both excellent at the top and the death as they allowed a meagre 27 runs in their 6 overs combined, picking up a wicket each.
The remaining nine overs from Ashish Nehra, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja went for 93 runs as Mahmudullah lived up to his billing as the designated finisher in this Bangladesh side, making a blistering 13-ball 33.
Not the stiffest of targets to chase for this in-form Indian batting line-up but Bangladesh would have fancied their chances at the half-way stage with the vociferous (to put it mildly) home crowd bound to play a part.
Just as one would expect from the partisan crowd in Mirpur, every dot ball was cheered as if the match was won. As India began their chase in a manner best described as sedate -- with 19 runs and the loss of Rohit Sharma in the first four overs -- you could sense the sheer weight of inevitability slowly descending on the Bangladesh players and the excitable crowd.
Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan cut the drama and set about doing their job with sly, almost unnoticeable ease. It is now indisputable that Kohli has mastered run-chase like a Novak Djokovic redefining baseline efficiency -- he just goes out and does it.
As he and Dhawan stitched together a match-winning 94-run partnership, what stood out was Kohli's absolute control over the proceedings. Right from the first ball that he punched through the covers off back-foot for a couple of runs, Kohli never once looked under duress during his 28-ball stay for 41 crucial runs.
When 20-year-old Abu Hider came on to bowl the fifth over, Kohli cleared his front foot to slap it hard and flat over mid-off to signify India's first move of authority in the run-chase. When Shakib al Hasan came on to bowl in the next over, he rocked back and pulled a short ball with clinical precision to place it between the deep mid-wicket and square-leg fielders.
Off Mashrafe Mortaza's next over, he played a delightful flick just wide of fine leg. It was around this time that Dhawan got into his groove and Kohli was mature enough to let the left-hander take control from then on. Oh, and by the end of India's successful chase, Kohli's average in T20Is, batting second, climbed above 85. That number tells its own story.
Without ever huffing and puffing, without ever clicking into top gear, Kohli kept finding the boundaries in regular intervals to ease the pressure on Dhawan at the other end, who did not particularly look too comfortable at the beginning of the innings.
Apart from the delightful cut short he played in the first over of the innings, Dhawan was finding the going tough against a disciplined Bangladesh attack. Dhawan came into this match on the back of three innings without runs, including a 20-ball 16 against UAE where he looked out-of-sorts.
After a series of dot-balls and quick singles to begin his knock, he got a lucky break (or two) in Hider's over as he was caught stuck in the crease twice, and the outside edge on both occasions got him four runs. The second one, where he edged it so fine as to split the 'keeper and first slip, brought out a huge grin on his face -- perhaps he knew that this was his day.
He then, quite literally, swept Bangladesh out of the match -- with the down-on-the-knees lofted sweep off Mortaza over fine leg for a six being the stand out shot.
After his wicket, perhaps surprisingly, Dhoni walked out to bat at No. 4 for the first time this series. With talks of him not being fully fit, and promoting Yuvraj Singh and Hardik Pandya at every opportunity on their way to the final, it was unexpected for Dhoni to walk out.
So what did he do? Smash 20 runs in 6 balls to finish the match before the last over, of course.
A 104-metre six, a stylish-looking lofted cover drive and another huge six over mid-wicket later, India romped to an 8-wicket win with 7-balls to spare -- in a 15-over match, that's as dominating as it gets. Putting in perspective the gap between the two sides, pre-match hype notwithstanding.
"We were quite comfortable during the chase, we never felt pressure," Dhawan said as he picked up his man-of-the-match award for a superb 44-ball 60.
Post-match comments do not often reveal much, but this comment from Dhawan stood out. Here were two batsmen who seemingly thrived under pressure even as the fans grew nervous. From 19 for 1 in overs, the required rate creeping above nine and the decibel level in the stadium well into three figures, they made light work of the chase, in the company of a rejuvenated Dhoni.
"I think Shikhar (Dhawan) played himself in really nicely. My only aim was to keep going at the other end so that the run-rate doesn't stop. I had to understand my role. Once Shikhar got towards the end of his innings, I hit two or three boundaries which released pressure for us," Kohli told BCCI.tv on Monday.
That was the stand-out aspect of this chase. There were all the ingredients for India to buckle under pressure -- hungry and aggressive opponents, boisterous crowd -- and in a shortened version of the shortest format, even a loss could have been written off as an one-off.
But Kohli, Dhawan and Dhoni showed superb professionalism and the game was won thanks to their mental makeup as much as the composition of the side. The sixth Asia Cup title and Dhoni's fourth multi-national tournament win ensured India's warm-up to the ICC World T20 has been near-flawless.
Tougher tests await in the World Cup, but this settled Indian side looks well set to handle most challenges thrown their way.
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