MS Dhoni stood alone at the non-striker’s end as the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium exploded.
It is often said of Indian cricketers that they play under unbearable pressure. Each time they walk out, they are cheered on by thousands of spectators who want nothing less than a win from their idols. They are also said to carry a “weight of expectations of 1.2 billion people” on their shoulders. That “unbearable pressure” would have seemed a luxury on Sunday evening. Heck, there might have even been a deep longing for it. For India weren’t playing in front of an adoring sea of blue but a raucous and aggressive 25000-strong gathering, creating a din worthy of twice its size.
They weren’t egging you on as you tried to dig deep. They were vociferously telling you to get the hell out of there.
Ambati Rayudu had just cut a short one from Rubel Hossain straight to the fielder at point. He was walking back for a three-ball duck. Two wickets in the space of two runs, and every single Bangladeshi in the stands was delirious.
The bat resting against his pads, Dhoni took off his gloves before putting them back on. The palms must have been sweaty, not just because of the humidity. No amount of international experience can fully prepare you for such atmosphere. He might have been thinking about the mistake Rayudu just committed, opting for a cut when he should have pulled or left the ball alone. Dhoni must also have been thinking about the mistake that he himself committed. That of picking Rayudu in place of Ajinkya Rahane.
Playing Rayudu was not the problem. He is a fine batsman, and anyone can get out on zero. Rohit Sharma got out on zero earlier in the day, for that matter. The blunder was to keep Rahane on the bench. Among the most confounding decisions that the Indian think tank had made in recent memory, this one is right up there.
Agreed Rahane’s ODI form has been well below the bar that he has set for himself. Since his 79 against South Africa in the World Cup, he is averaging an unflattering 27 in seven ODIs. But he has been scoring heavily in other formats.
He was the second highest run-getter in the IPL. If the IPL is suddenly not the benchmark in Indian cricket, then in the Test match against Bangladesh at Fatullah, Rahane scored nearly run-a-ball 98.
In any case, Rahane is more than the sum of his numbers. He brings to the crease not only a watertight batting technique but a calm head as well. Right now, he is your best batsman in the face of adversity. A case in point, all his three Test hundreds — and two nineties — have come away from home.
And it’s not that Rayudu had any irresistible numbers backing his case. In the last seven ODI innings, he is averaging 22.85. Moreover, he is the same batsman Dhoni didn’t give strike to in the final over of the one-off T20 against England at Edgbaston last year. That was a meaningless game of T20. This, with the team already 1-0 down, was a must-win ODI.
Rahane watched from the sidelines as Rohit came and went soon after India opted to bat. Before he had his eye in, Rohit drove an away-going delivery by Mustafizur Rahman straight to point. Virat Kohli never looked comfortable but hung on to add 74 runs with Shikhar Dhawan as India seemed to ridden out the storm. But like the last game, just when things were settling down, and the crowd had fallen silent, a wicket fell. Kohli misread a Nasir Hossain off-break. It missed the bat and hit him plumb in front.
In a brave move, Dhoni promoted himself. After a couple of cavalier shots early on, he settled down as the offie Hossain was looking dangerous on this slow and turning track. As was the case with Rohit in the last match, Dhawan fell soon after his half century, trying to charge out against Hossain, but edging the ball to the keeper.
India were three down. This is when Rahane usually walks in. Instead, Rayudu came and registered a duck against his name, and left the team at 110/4. Dhoni and Suresh Raina scaled down the ambitions. Batting out 50 overs seemed to be the revised target. They brought up perhaps one of their slowest 50 partnerships. Then, as soon as India took the powerplay, Mashrafe Mortaza brought out the trump card.
Mystery repeats itself
Three balls into his second spell, Rahman gobbled up Raina with a short-pitched off-cutter that the batsman tamely edged to the wicketkeeper. Dhoni fell soon after, caught at short cover for 47 off 74 balls, as he was surprised by a cutter that gripped the surface. Axar Patel lasted one ball, castled by an inswinging delivery. Rahman, as we have said before, is not a one-trick pony.
The hat-trick didn’t come but soon after, with Ravichandran Ashwin caught-behind off the cutter, Rahman became only the second bowler after Zimbabwean Brian Vitori to have taken back-to-back five-fors in the first two ODIs of his career. Vitori’s record, incidentally, had come against Bangladesh.
With rain intervening, India got a brief respite. The match was reduced to 47 overs a side. But India weren’t to last even that distance. Rahman took a sixth and Rubel his second as the end came at 200, with two overs to spare. The roof was off the stadium, again.