Sandeep Sharma marked his run-up at the base of the sponsor’s mark at the Harare Sports Club. He looked up at the sky and muttered a silent prayer, holding the white Dukes ball to his chest. The 22-year old from Patiala had waited his entire young life for this moment. To bowl a ball for India in international cricket.
Despite being in the nascency of his career, Sandeep has already run in about a thousand times (933 times, to be really accurate) for Kings XI Punjab in the IPL and Punjab in the domestic T20 tournament. To batsmen with far more brutal reputations than Chamu Chibhabha.
Sandeep crossed umpire Russell Tiffin and completed his action with a full ball outside Chibhabha’s off stump. Three seconds later, the ball was picked up in the patio of Indian dressing room. International cricket. Ruthless international cricket. Immediately, captain Ajinkya Rahane ran towards his opening bowler and put a consoling arm around his shoulders. Next ball, Sandeep dropped it back of a length and Chibhabha cut him for a single. But Sandeep was full again. This time Hamilton Masakadza, Zimbabwe’s most experienced T20 player, scooped the ball over his left shoulder and fine-leg fence for a six.
Rattled, he would bowl two wides and his first tryst with international cricket would finally end for 16 runs, giving Zimbabwe’s openers a cosy foothold in their search of 179 runs — the target set by India.
But somehow, Zimbabwe would go from 55/0 to 68/4 to 90/6 — losing six wickets for 35 runs in the space of exactly eight overs. On Friday, that ‘somehow’ went by the name of Axar Patel, India’s other T20 debutant in the bowling department. He helped India score a 54-run win.
Maybe, Zimbabwe would have needed five Sandeeps to win this one. That was not the case. By the time the bowler form Punjab came back for his second spell in the final over of the match and promptly got thumped for another six and four (by tailender Neville Madziva no less) the game was already dead and buried for Zimbabwe. Mainly because left-arm spinner Axar, aided beautifully by Harbhajan Singh, had laid it to rest.
Akshar Rajeshbhai Patel, or Axar in short, also has a wealth of T20 experience by having played for the same team as Sandeep’s, Kings XI. But he’s also played a fistful of internationals in the past year. That perhaps was the big difference between the two debutants on Friday as Axar made his experience count to the fullest on a chilly afternoon in Harare. When he was introduced into the attack, in the sixth over, Chibhabha and Masakadza were cruising. But Axar took a quick shining to this slow and low wicket. The first three balls were flighted, full and on middle and off. It didn’t cost him much. He was just turned for singles here and there.
The last ball of the over was rocketed in and well short of good length. Chibhabha crashed that against the long-on fence. By the time Axar collected his cap from the umpire, he had already figured out what was right and wrong on this pitch. So much so that he wouldn’t get hit for another boundary again.
The breakthrough, however, came from Harbhajan. Maskadza gave him a pasting in his first over, slapping a length ball for six over midwicket. But when Chibhabha tried to do the exact same thing in the offie’s next over, he was caught by a whizzing Manish Pandey in the deep. Harbhajan waved him goodbye and Axar would do the same to two Zimbabwe batters in the next over.
Up until this point and right through the series in fact, the burly Masakadza had been getting down on one knee and sweeping spinners with great poise. But when he faced Axar in the 10th over, his knee-drop was premeditated and a watchful Axar gave the ball more air, reducing the speed of the ball. It caught a large chunk of the batsman’s open blade and was pouched without effort by Kedar Jadhav square on the leg side, well inside the circle. Masakadza at least got some bat on it. His captain, Elton Chigumbura, couldn’t even do that. Two balls later as Axar slipped in his armer, Chigumbura played all around it and had his middle stump pegged back. Six overs later, the orthodox would dismiss Sikandar Raza the exact same way to reduce Zimbabwe to 90/6 with four overs to go. Game over.
It was a good day for Rahane to win his first toss of the tour and elect to bat first. Including self, each of his batters in the top order got starts. But starts don’t win you matches, stops do. And after Sandeep’s comma, Axar put the final punctuation mark on Zimbabwe’s innings and this game.
Brief scores: India 178/5 in 20 overs (R Uthappa 39 n.o., M Vijay 34, A Rahane 33; C Mpofu 3/33) bt Zimbabwe 124/7 in 20 overs (H Masakadza 28; H Singh 3/17) by 54 runs.