Kane Williamson and Mike Hesson, New Zealand’s captain and coach, have turned pitch reading into an art in this World T20 in India. In Nagpur against India, they chose three spinners despite the curator telling them that the track was fast and bouncy. Their tweakers spun India out for 79. In Dharamsala too, their assessment was spot on. New Zealand left out Trent Boult and Tim Southee yet again and picked two spinners and two pacers. The strategy paid off again. (STATS || POINTS TABLE || FIXTURES)
Standing beside a greentop ahead of the toss, Rameez Raja hairwas all over the place with a strong breeze blowing across. These were New Zealand-like conditions, but would in theory suit Pakistan’s pace bowling more. Shahid Afridi, even in the absence of the injured Wahab Riaz, would have been itching to win the toss and bowl first. He didn’t win the toss, but Williamson did him that favour. He elected to bat.
“The pitch looks pretty good, a bit of grass but dry underneath. It looks a different surface, so we have to adapt again. Hopefully, we can put a bit of pressure in the second innings,” Williamson said. There was no change in New Zealand squad, Williamson left out Boult and Southee again.
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The atmosphere was electrifying. The venue that didn’t see even 2000 spectators during the first India versus South Africa Test match four months ago, was nearly packed on Monday evening. And there was tremendous support for Pakistan here. An almighty roar went up as Amir’s face came up on the big screen as the Pakistani XI was announced. And again when he handed the umpire his cap, measured his run-up and steamed in to bowl to big man Guptill.
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Guptill has had a mixed tournament so far. In Nagpur, he smoked a humongous biggie off New Zealand’s first ball of the tournament, bowled by Ravichandran Ashwin, but was out leg-before off the very next. Against Australia, he made a brisk 39 off 27 balls. But New Zealand would expect more from the man who is the third highest run-getter in T20 Internationals. Guptill probably also had a point to prove to India in general. For, despite his limited-overs credentials and reletively throwaway base price of Rs 50 lakh, he wasn’t picked in the IPL auction in February.
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In fact, an ESPNCricinfo story on his omission quoted an unnamed member of the coaching staff of an unspecified franchise questioning Guptill’s effectiveness on Indian pitches. “How much of Guptill’s performances are inside New Zealand and how much outside? There were doubts about his adaptability in Indian conditions. Even [RPSG coach] Stephen Fleming didn’t go for him,” the insider had pointed out. These doubts were removed emphatically.
Guptill in full flow
The first ball was a fuller one and swung sharply into the right-hander. He would follow it up with beautiful outswingers, beating the batsmen and raising hopes for his team in this almost must-win match. The pressure that built up in the first over, however, was quickly released off the first ball of the second when Guptill smacked a fittingly tall six off the seven-footer Mohammad Irfan. In the next over, he would demystify Amir with three rasping boundaries. New Zealand were up and running, and by the time they would finish at 180 for five, the talented left-arm seamer would end up taking the worst beating since his return to international cricket.
With Guptill in full flow against the pacers and spinners alike — using his feet and outrageous batswing — the powerplay overs yielded 55 runs. Pakistan pulled back briefly with the wickets of Williamson and Colin Munro. But Guptill and Anderson then shared a half-century partnership for the third wicket off just 32 balls. On the 33rd, Guptill inside-edged Mohamad Sami, Pakistan’s standout bowler on this day, to walk back for 80 runs off 47 balls — an innings laced with three malevolent sixes and 10 sweetly struck fours. It was the 15th over and New Zealand were 127 then — one more than what their bowlers had defended against India in the opening match. They would add 53 more to that.
As the teams walked back during the break, Pakistan’s fans hollered in unison to the DJ’s question:Jeetega bhai jeetega…? “PAKISTAN JEETEGA!” The odds were heavily stacked against Shahid Afridi & Co. Their batting, except for their opening World T20 match against Bangladesh, has been downright pedestrian. In fact, this has got to be the worst Pakistani batting side in living memory. On the top of that, one of their more dependable batsmen in this line-up, Mohammad Hafeez, had to sit out because of a knee injury. Throw in the fact that their highest successful T20I chase has been 178 and that New Zealand came into this match having defended much lower scores, and it was evident Pakistan had their backs absolutely pinned to the wall.
And what do Pakistan do when cornered? They come out swinging. The left-handed Sharjeel Khan, who has been averaging 14 odd since he was recalled for the Asia Cup, faced the talented left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner first up. The first ball was a full toss and it was dispatched straight back to the boundary. Two more fours came in the over, and suddenly we had a fight on hand. han stayed there till the sixth over and plundered 47 runs off 25 balls, in which time no bowler looked safe. But his miscued drive off Adam Milne was caught at backward point, and it started a downward slide. Two things happened in quick succession. The batting powerplay ended and the field was spread out, and Ish Sodhi was deployed by Williamson. With the field spread out, the leg-spinner stopped the boundary flow. As the Pakistanis started hitting out mindlessly, you knew they had pressed the panic button. Meanwhile, Williamson, who looked a bit flustered while Sharjeel was there, was back to smiling that beatific smile again.