Cricket has a way of biting you in the back. Back in November, when India crushed South Africa on a devilish spin track in Nagpur, a thought had floated in the mind, and inked on paper. Whether they would have prepared such a track had South Africa possessed couple of decent spinners? The New Zealanders answered that question in a most exhilarating fashion possible. When have a bunch of foreign spinners, relatively callow at that, come here and tied up the Indians, and teased, taunted and suffocated them?
Whatever you feel about this loss as fan of India, there couldn’t have been more thrilling way to start the main draw of the World Cup. Now the cat is flung and howling among the pigeons. If there was any plan to prepare turners for India – whether it was done at team’s behest or independently is beside the point here – the least the curators can do is to check the schedule properly and see who the opponents are.
The Indian batting against quality spin isn’t a state secret of course. The Galle Test in Sri Lanka in August 2015 was a case in point when left-arm Rangana Herath tripped them up. Still, the way they chased here must have raised a few eyebrows. What can you say about Shikhar Dhawan? He had seen 20 overs of New Zealand batting, 20 overs where the ball spun and bounced, 20 overs to realise you can ill afford to play a lazy sweep. The knees bent ever so slowly, and the bat came slower, and he was trapped plumb in front.
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At what point in his iffy stumble down the track to the impressive left-arm orthodox spinner Mitchell Santner did Rohit Sharma realise he was in trouble? Considering the previous ball that turned sharply, and the 20 overs of memory bank before that, it should have been at the first step. Short and uncertain steps, and the final panicky push of the bat way ahead of the body in hope that there would be some leather on the wood. To Santner’s delight, there wasn’t any.
A time out here from the India’s drunken stumble to focus on Santner. It’s a pretty cute story: A man who wears big nerdy glasses everywhere except the cricket field as he doesn’t want to remind people of his hero Daniel Vettori. He fell in love with spin as a schoolboy, watching videos on You Tube, and likes Nathan Lyon’s bowling. There was the loop of Lyon and the accuracy of Vettori on view in Nagpur. Unlike Vettori, he spun the ball a lot, and unlike Lyon, the younger version that is, he was far more accurate. And who should he run to on his debut in the pink-ball Test in Australia? Lyon of course. And as he walked in to bat, Lyon served up a sledge: “Are you nervous?” Santner disarmed it in charmingly by admitting, “Yes I am!”
Wonder whether he asked any Indian batsmen when they came out to bat. Suresh Raina too would have probably answered in the affirmative. His batting has become almost one-dimensional these days and he can’t really be trusted, yet, to pull India out of trouble against quality seam or spin. Well, you can say the same about Yuvraj Singh, too. Raina was done in more by the lack of pace on the track of course — he went back and just froze as the ball limped on towards him. And that fat thick edge meant the leading edge got the ball to spoon up to short midwicket.
Yuvraj had started pretty decently this time around, even getting down on his knees quicker than normal to sweep a ball to fine-leg boundary. But he chipped at one a touch hard, the bat scraping the ground, and the ball scooping up back to the bowler Nathan McCullum. It was 26 for 4, then and even though Virat Kohli was joined in by MS Dhoni, it must be said that the situation seemed rather dire for a real turn around.
But this is Kohli and Dhoni we are talking about, and their past did make one wonder whether they can live up to the broadcaster’s slogan, ‘make your own miracle’. And it was the most serene 10-odd runs, 13 to be precise, that India made in the chase. Judiciously, Kohli chose to hang on the back foot and let the wrists work the ball off the pitch, and Dhoni was careful not to push too far away or front of the body. It was slightly surprising, then, to see Kohli go the way he did: lunging out to drive the first ball from the new bowler Ish Sodhi, a ripper of a legbreak, and give the edge to the ‘keeper.
Thirty-nine for five soon became 42 for six when Hardik Pandya was stunned by a quicker one from Santner that rushed in with the angle to trap him lbw. From then on it was a blur of wickets, and the crowd, who had thronged three hours before the start of play, had one Dhoni six to cheer about.
It wasn’t just their batting, even India’s bowling wasn’t quite sharp yesterday. Their tactics were a touch strange too, especially against Corey Anderson. It seemed a definite plan to keep bowling to his legs – he only scored 8 of his 34 on the off side. It’s one thing for Ashwin and Raina, the off-spinners to bowl there, but when even Ravindra Jadeja, who had just bowled a ripper that cut Santner in half and winked over the middle stump, chose to ping Anderson’s legs in the same over, it did seem a case of not adapting to the pitch but be too obsessed with a pre-game plan. And so Anderson prospered, making a 42-ball 34 to push New Zealand to a decent total.
Later, Dhoni talked about 140 being a par-score and how it was a “good wake- up call”. It was more than that of course. This was India’s second lowest T20 total, and the lowest ever T20 total by any international team in India. And their aggregate of 79 was also what South Africa had scored in the first innings in that darned Nagpur Test.
So it wasn’t just a mild wake-up vibratory call from the fit-bit phones of today but it was like being dunked by cold water on a bone-chilling night, and when you shudder and wake up, what do you see? The cute nerdy face of Mitchell Santner.