A stream of expletives poured out of his lips, his head thudded against the wall, before he started repeating, “Should have finished it, should have finished it.” Virat Kohli was livid inside the dressing room at Rajkot last October. He had got out in the 46th over of the chase, and India went on to lose the game to South Africa that they should have won. Even as the head-banging and cussing was going on, a team source said, MS Dhoni was sat in silence beside Kohli, staring straight ahead. It’s the pair that would drive India’s World T20 aspirations, a contrasting combo of serenity and emotion, of restrain and abandonment, but together they form the heart of this team.
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Both have looked good with the bat in the recent times, with Kohli managing to close out games from the kind of situations that he berated himself for failing to do on that Rajkot night. Dhoni had looked slightly out of sorts last year with his big-hitting seemingly on the wane, but he too has done necessary course correction and is belting out the big hits fairly consistently these days.
In Nagpur, on the eve of the first game of the main draw against New Zealand, the pair did the thing they do — Kohli punched and fisted the ball crisply, and Dhoni focussed on smashing the white ball into the stands from the practice pitch that was adjacent to the match turf.
Virat Kohli: No one can afford to drift away
India will start as one of the strong favourites to win the tournament, and they might well do if the pitches continue to play out the way they have done in Nagpur last week. The two pitches that were used for the qualifying games were the slow burners that we normally find in this country — slow and aiding turn. Sikandar Raza, the unpretentious offspinner from Zimbabwe, got the ball to turn so much that he couldn’t quite control it, and ended up slipping a few leg-side wides in the process. The Indian spinners should relish this sort of tracks and prove quite a handful.
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New Zealand are a good team who have all bases covered, in theory. In Martin Guptill, Colin Munro, Henry Nicholls, Ross Taylor, Luke Ronchi, they have the batsmen who can bludgeon the ball, in their captain Kane Williamson who can adapt his style to match situation, and they have the allround talent of Corey Anderson, Mitchell Santner and Grant Elliott. They have good seamers in Trent Boult, Tim Southee and a pretty decent pacer in Adam Milne.
But here is the thing: on a turning track, it’s very difficult to see them beating India. All their big-hitters will have trouble against turn, their seamers will have issues in the absence of seam movement, and much will then depend on Williamson or Taylor with the bat, and perhaps the pacy Milne with the ball. Even in the warm-up games, they had their problems against the spinning ball.
A potent combination
A band drummed up the beats during India’s practice session on Monday, and Harbhajan Singh and Shikhar Dhawan indulged in some bhangra moves. It’s a fairly happy camp, settled and self-aware. A lovely mix of youth and experience who are at a fascinating space in their lives. The young are usually the anxious ones as they are eager to make a name for themselves, but the Indian youngsters, like Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bhumrah, are different from the norm. Pandya has this nonchalant air about him and Bhumrah is growing in confidence — the two probably see the event as an avenue of self-expression.
The seniors are usually settled and secure about their position in the team but some Indian veterans are the ones with points to prove, to themselves if not to the world. Yuvraj Singh, Ashish Nehra, and Harbhajan Singh have been given a rare chance of revival late in their careers that they can ill afford to waste.
Thus, it’s a team at a fairly unique space: the seniors are unlikely to get caught in the trap of complacency, and youngsters seem to have the temperament not to get overawed and overwhelmed by the stature of the tournament. This temperamental makeup is the chief factor that raises hope that this team could have a real good run in this world event. And the pitches favourable to turn won’t hurt them, of course.
It will then come down to how they handle the home support that can range from manic support to insane demands and even trolling on twitter. In world cricket, there are few cricketers as ambitious as Kohli, or as aware as him in handling expectations and pressure. Here is what he had to say about playing in India.
“On the field is the safest and quietest place for you, especially playing in your home country. The field is where you actually get away, it’s the place where you feel the least pressure in big tournaments like these where you have a chance to express yourself. But the key will be how you manage yourself away from the ground. And that requires a collective effort. One can’t afford to drift away from the plan and focus on what the opposition is doing throughout the tournament.”
Kohli also spoke about the mind space of the youngsters in the team. “As a youngster, I was quite anxious during the 2011 World Cup, to prove myself and establish myself. I think our youngsters now, whether it is Hardik or Bumrah, also have that anxiety in them, but they also have a lot more confidence compared to us (senior players), when we came into the team, because they have played so much T20 cricket in the IPL, and played with big stars.”
There are a few concerns, of course. Yuvraj Singh’s batting is getting better by the day but he isn’t quite there yet. He might hit couple of breezy knocks but he could freeze up at crucial juncture in a big game. The lower middle order is capable of some breathtaking big hits but their techniques are now so cemented that a possible flaw winks at you.
Pandya, for instance, almost fixes up a base for himself at stance, that the best delivery to bowl at him — for that matter at a fair few hitters around the world — is a full delivery well outside off. They seem so entrenched in the stance — standing still and setting themselves up for the big swing of the bat that they, at times, are almost loath to do anything that would upset that balance they have. So when someone like Mitchell Marsh, who loves bowling that well-outside-off line, pings that line of attack, the big hitters like Pandya can be a touch late to react. This isn’t a criticism but just an observation, for it would be really silly to carp about something that has made them so dizzyingly good.
All in all, with the pitches, and the fascinating headspace of seniors and juniors, India look set to go a long way in this tournament. It would be an immense surprise if they don’t.