For the first time in their entire tour of India, England find themselves on the verge of winning a series. For a large part of the tour they have been virtually banging their heads against the wall, trying to win something of note, and their moment came in the third and final ODI of the series in Kolkata. That win after over two months of sheer disappointment seems to have shaken the England players out of their stupor. In the next match - the first of the ongoing T20I series - they just steamrolled the Indians, putting up a performance that was completely at odds with their earlier struggles.
Eoin Morgan's side go into the second T20I of the series in Nagpur knowing that they have a golden opportunity give a fitting reply to Virat Kohli and Co for having humiliated them for a good part of the tour. For India it is a do-or-die situation on Sunday. A loss in the T20I series would, if nothing else, tone down the visual impact of the dominance they have had over England. India, therefore, would want to win in Nagpur and keep the T20I series alive at all costs.
And for that to happen, India have to be a bit bolder in their team selection. KL Rahul has hit a trough after that magnificent 199 in the Chennai Test in December, scoring a total of 32 runs in the next four innings (three ODIs and one T20I). So it is high time that the big-hitter Rishabh Pant is included in the team and put right at the top of the order, with the licence to go after the bowling. Pant has already created a lot of interest around him with his aggressive batting. Only about a year ago, he had set the stage on fire in the U-19 World Cup, scoring an 18-ball fifty - the fastest U-19 fifty - against Nepal and also played an imperious 96-ball 111 against Namibia in the semi-final. Then late last year, he slammed a 48-ball century - the fastest by an Indian in first class cricket - in a Ranji Trophy match.
But that is not the only change in the Indian playing eleven that is being called for. There is merit in giving Mandeep Singh a look-in. What his inclusion will do is that it would add depth to the batting.
Mandeep has a bit over 900 runs in the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 49 innings and has been a really important player for his team in the top order. If he is selected to open the innings as Pant's partner, Kohli can drop down to No 3, from where he can control the innings and have the middle order revolve around him. If the decision of the team management is to have Kohli open the innings, as he did in Kanpur, so that the best player in the team gets the chance to play the maximum number of deliveries, Mandeep can be slotted at No 3.
Manish Pandey, on the other hand, hasn't been able to capitalise on the chances that he has got, and disappointed in the first T20I too. Even after seven T20Is, he has not been able hit a total of 100. In a must-win match, it makes sense, therefore, to look for a replacement.
After India's heavy defeat in the last match, many have lamented the non-selection of Kedar Jadhav. He played a large part in fashioning India's win in the first ODI in Pune and almost repeated the feat in the last ODI in Kolkata. However, the team management have to make do with the team given to them by the selectors, and Jadhav, unfortunately, is not part of it, at least for this series. Yes, this is not the strongest Indian T20I team that there can ever be, with frontline players like Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja also rested. Their availability would have given a fine balance to the side. However, there is no point crying over what is not there, and the team has to be selected from the resources that are there.
So who can be Pandey's replacement lower down the order? It could well be Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who has proven himself as a crafty swing bowler and can hit a long ball. Hardik Pandya at No 7 and Bhuvneshwar at No 8 would give the Indian batting line-up bit more teeth. And with Bhuvneshwar in the team, Nehra can perhaps be rested, with Bhuvneshwar sharing the new ball with Jasprit Bumrah.
This will mean that off-spinner Parvez Rasool will retain his place in the side. Rasool's inclusion becomes necessary particularly to counter England captain Morgan, who has been in fantastic form. Morgan, who was under a bit of pressure at the start of limited-overs series, battling indifferent form, fought back with a near-match-winning innings in the second ODI and Cuttack, and had played vital knocks in the next two matches (the third ODI and first T20I). He has shown that his favourite shot is the slog-sweep and has used it to tremendous effect, peppering the area between long-on and deep mid-wicket.
Rasool had accounted for Morgan in the first T20I. He will spin the ball away from Morgan and there is every chance that the ball may go up in the air off a top edge, if Morgan tries to hit the off-spinner against the spin. And by bringing in the long-on and deep mid-wicket inside the ring against Morgan with Rasool in operation can entice the England captain to go for the slog-sweep. This can be an effective ploy that the Indians can adopt to neutralise the threat of Morgan.
With Jasprit Bumrah, Pandya and Bhuvneshwar as the four pacers and Yuzvendra Chahal, who gave a good account of himself in the last match, Rasool and Yuvraj Singh as the three spinners, the bowling looks potent.
What India can't afford is to get bogged down as they did in the last match, and while bowling, would have to find a way to keep the big England stroke-players in check. That is exactly where the inclusion of Pant and Bhuvneshwar can make the difference.
England, on the other hand, need to hold on to the momentum that they have found and end the tour well. Their top order comprising Jason Roy, Sam Billings, Joe Root and Morgan, has been in sublime touch in the limited-overs. Ben Stokes in the middle order contributed useful runs in the Pune and Kolkata, and is a more than handy bowler. Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali can also give the ball a tonk.
Moeen's bowling was one of big reasons for England's emphatic win in the first T20I. He not only took two crucial wickets, one of them being that of the dangerous Kohli, he gave away a mere 21 runs in his four overs, playing the lead role in applying the choke on the 'explosive' Indian batting line-up. England's all-rounders and utility players are one of their biggest assets, especially in limited overs, and another such player lower down the order would be Adil Rashid.
If England manage to win the T20I series on Sunday, one fears, they would have enough momentum to push for a whitewash in the final T20I in Bangalore on 1 February, which would then most certainly take some sheen away from India's fantastic run of late.
The venue for Sunday's fixture, the Jamtha stadium, will be hosting its first T20I in 10 months since the World T20 last year. The last T20I that India played at the ground was against New Zealand in the World T20 last year, and were bowled out for a paltry 79, leading to a rout at the hands of the Kiwis. It set India's World T20 campaign to the worst possible start. Can Jamtha be luckier for India on Sunday? Would India stay afloat in the series after Sunday's match? That is all to be seen, but a big advantage for the Indian spinners at Jamtha, as pointed out by Chahal, would be the big size of the ground.
"Big grounds makes a difference. You can flight the ball. Also, there's a doubt in the batsmen's mind as to which ball to hit and he will have to make a choice. In a small ground, batsman can try hitting every ball, but here he has to pick and choose," the young Indian spinner said. The 75-yard boundary at Jamtha is at least 10 yards more than that at Kanpur's Green Park, which played host to the first T20I of the series.
Sunday's match also gains importance from the fact that it is the first time in many months that an Indian team, certainly one led by Kohli, find themselves in a tight corner. The last time India lost a home series in any form of cricket was 15 months ago, in October, 2015 to South Africa in the ODIs. The comprehensiveness of England's victory in Kanpur would have been utterly jarring for the Men in Blue. Whether Team Kohli can wriggle out of this tough situation and turn things around would play a part in shaping their legacy in the final analysis. The most successful teams in the history of sports have been ones that have emerged stronger from adversity. Can Kohli and Co do so as well? It is going to be a stern test of the character and fortitude of Kohli and his team. Jamtha waits...
Updated Date: Jan 29, 2017 11:54 AM