THE OVAL had a very Asian feel to it on Tuesday morning. The skies overhead and the general air around might have been very English, but the pervading buzz in and around the historic venue — right from the Kennington underground station to the one outside the ground — was dominated by swarms of Indian and Bangladeshi fans with the unmistakable sounds of Gujarati mingling with the odd Bengali. For the Bangladeshi fans, and even the team perhaps, this was no warm-up match. This was the umpteenth shot at revenge.
Revenge for the World Cup loss, revenge for the World T20 defeat; and they held sway in terms of vociferous support for the first half of India’s innings. A few even got into an argument with one of the guards near the Vauxhall End with the Jamaican security official actually having to warn them for their behaviour and even pointing out how better behaved the Indians were.
Then Hardik Pandya shut them up before the Indian pace battery ran through the Bangladesh batting, dismissing them for a mere 84 to seal a 240-run victory in their second warm-up game. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav shared the first six wickets equally. Earlier, Dinesh Karthik and Shikhar Dhawan had steadied the ship after the loss of two early wickets to the new ball. And it was obvious that the Indians were taking this game very much like the warm-up that it was with Karthik retiring despite being only six runs short of a century.
But the match was evenly poised around the time Pandya walked in, at the fall of Kedar Jadhav’s wicket with the section of the crowd donning green and carrying tiger soft-toys outdoing those in blue with their collective roar. But from that point on, it was only the Indian contingent that did all the shouting and cheering with Pandya smashing a blistering 80 not out in just 54 balls with four sixes to take India to 324/7 in 50 overs.
Warm-up matches are all about ticking boxes. And the genuine seam-bowling all-rounder has been one box that has remained in the red seemingly forever — the days of Kapil Dev now seem as sepia-toned as the majority of the photos of former Surrey stars that you find around the Oval, maybe because of how incessantly we’ve heard that diatribe. If England, Australia and South Africa are being hailed as the pre-tournament favourites, it has a lot to do with the presence of match-changing lower-order strikers, from Ben Stokes to Andile Phelukwayo, who double up as useful seaming options.
There was a time in ODI cricket’s history where the general strategy was about doubling the score post the 30th over. These days that yardstick doesn’t hold with a run rate in double figures almost a must in the last 15 overs, even in England where pitches have caught up with the rest of the world in terms of being batsman-friendly.
Pandya has provided reason over the last eight months for being looked at as someone who could actually tick the one remaining box — more with conviction than hope, for a change — in what is otherwise India’s most well-rounded ODI line-up in years. And he showed just why at the Oval.
Pandya’s greatest strength when it comes to hitting is his ability to not telegraph his intentions with regards to which part of the ground he’s targeting. Though he’s not averse to using the crease, he doesn’t make his move too early. In the IPL, the routine plan for opposition seamers was going around the wicket and targeting his toes, the rationale being his supposed need to free his arms.
But he still kept hitting sixes — 20 off them in IPL X – managing to generate enough power with his forearms even when he didn’t get the room. The last of his four sixes on Tuesday, off Rubel Hossain, was the perfect illustration as he pushed back deep into his crease which allowed him to get under what was a rather well-directed yorker, and clear the long-on fence by a distance.
That Pandya has now spent the last two months playing the same role for Mumbai Indians, and is carrying that confidence into this tournament, could make him the game-changer that India has desperately sought in their lower order. Not to forget his self-confessed penchant to take centre-stage during the more make-or-break periods of a limited-overs contest. Unfortunately for Bangladesh and their fans, the skies had turned even more English by the time their innings began. And there was no revenge at hand.
Umesh and Bhuvneshwar made the most of the conditions, quite ruthlessly too, reducing them to 22/6 within eight overs with the kind of seam and swing bowling that the Oval is used to, though not often from a pack of Indian pacers. Pandya wasn’t required much with the ball as a result, but even in the 11 balls he bowled, he showed that he learns quickly, bowling a much fuller length than what he dished out against the Kiwis, and rather deservedly took the final wicket, a lovely out-swinger that got Hossain’s edge and was pouched at second slip as the defending champions marched into the main tournament with their tails up, having broken a few Bangladeshi hearts once more.