Updated: October 31, 2021 11:02:55 am
At the outset, a must-win game against a bogey team is never good news. New Zealand has inflicted ‘dignified’ hurt on India twice at ICC events in the last two years. A third time at the T20 World Cup on Sunday might force the tournament’s most glamorous outfit into an early exit.
Dignified, because even after knocking India out at the 2019 World Cup semifinal at Old Trafford, practically nobody begrudged the Kiwis. After winning the World Test Championship final at Southampton a few months ago, Kane Williamson rested his head on Virat Kohli’s shoulder. In between, even after rolling over India in a two-Test series at home on green-tops in early 2020, New Zealand were spared social media scorn. They crush dreams, with class.
India are in an unenvious position. They are expected to win every time they play and every loss is considered a crisis. Reactions to their 10-wicket loss to Pakistan was expected. Suddenly the team is looking unbalanced, from outside, due to a serious question mark over Hardik Pandya’s bowling fitness. The middle-order selection, Suryakumar Yadav or Ishan Kishan, is being debated. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s form is being put under the scanner and Yuzvendra Chahal’s non-selection is being criticised. India picked Rahul Chahar ahead of Chahal for the tournament but didn’t play the leggie against Pakistan.
— BCCI (@BCCI) October 30, 2021
The only real criticism possible is that they can be almost too stubborn in their selection. Everyone and their aunts knew that No.4 was a big hole in the 2019 World Cup but they never plugged it. Unsurprisingly, it returned to haunt them in the semi-final. There have been other such strange selections in the past, like playing two spinners in a Lord’s Test when the toss happened on the second day after the opening day was washed out due to rains. Now, Hardik Pandya’s place is the most debated. India seem to desperately hope that he can be the Asif Ali of India and help finish games in the absence of real firepower in the late order. He hasn’t had many runs in IPL and hasn’t of course bowled yet. But India’s real chance is when their openers do well. Much will depend on the starts Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul give.
From the team’s perspective, though, they have been in this situation before, many times, when people questioned their ability and wrote them off, only to have eggs on their face. It happened after Adelaide last year. It happened after Headingley a couple of months ago.
Nobody gave them a chance after 36 all out in a day-night Test in Adelaide. India minus Virat Kohli went on to secure Test series glory, breaching fortress Gabba with a bunch of fringe players in the process. After the innings defeat in Headingley, they came back with a bang at the Oval.
Every time, when India needed inspiration, one of their players stood up to be counted; be it Ajinkya Rahane’s century in Melbourne or Shardul Thakur’s first innings heroics at the Oval or Rohit Sharma’s century in the second innings in that game. A team replete with match-winners is well-placed to bounce back from reverses.
And this is not an ultra-modern trait. MS Dhoni took India to the title at the inaugural World T20 with the Joginders and the Uthappas and the Sreesanths, when the Fab Four decided to cool their heels. Despite not winning an ICC event since 2013, match-winning percentage-wise, India have been pretty consistent in the big events.
There’s a bit of Jose Mourinho in Kohli, the way he creates a siege mentality within the team. This has served India well. On the face of it, some of his words, when he guards his team from outside noise, sound repetitive. Kohli doesn’t mind.
“We as a group understand how we need to stick together, how we need to back individuals, how we need to focus on our strengths, and whether people on the outside portrayed it as being the fact that India cannot afford to lose a game, that’s none of our business because we play the sport and we understand exactly how the sport goes. So how people think on the outside has no value whatsoever within our group.” Kohli yet again channelled his inner Mourinho at the pre-match press conference on Saturday.
— BLACKCAPS (@BLACKCAPS) October 30, 2021
All said and done, India will have to get their selection right against New Zealand. On match eve, Indian players batted and bowled on a patch, adjacent to the main ICC Academy ground and a little away from the prying eyes of the reporters, whose movements are restricted due to bio-security protocols. Their stretching drills brought the entire team together and no one was missing. But coming back to selection, Pandya is likely to play only if he can bowl a couple of overs. Else, Shardul Thakur could be drafted in.
Kohli was cryptic about Pandya – “Hardik is fine, if you’re talking about the blow on the shoulder, he’s absolutely fine” – and open-ended about Shardul – “He’s definitely a guy who’s in our plans, constantly making a case for himself. And he’s definitely someone that can bring a lot of value to the team. Now what role he plays or where he fits in, that’s something that I cannot obviously talk about right now. But Shardul is someone who has great potential and he will add great value to the team.” The skipper shut down the sixth bowler factor by saying that if necessary, he is there to bowl an over or two and would have done that against Pakistan also if India batted first.
The Dew Factor
Evening dew in Dubai is playing a role. It’s not too heavy to put the bowlers in a spot in terms of gripping the ball, but effective enough to make the pitch a tad greasy in the second half. Sides batting second are getting that additional advantage and winning. Toss proving to be a big factor doesn’t offer a level playing field. But that’s how it is here.
“It will continue to be a big factor. That’s the nature of this tournament,” Kohli agreed and Trent Boult dittoed: “I suppose it’s a hard one to understand how much dew is going to come in.”
A lot will depend on what transpires in the battle between him and his Mumbai Indians captain Rohit Sharma and Boult drew Shaheen Shah Afridi’s reference. “… I thought the way Shaheen bowled the other night from a left-armer, watching on I thought it was amazing. But there’s quality batsmen in that India line-up.”
Afridi rattled India’s top-order. Rohit and company should be careful against Boult. Whatever happens in the end, New Zealand, arguably the second-most favourite team for the Indian fans, will be applauded for their dignity, a team culture set by Williamson. “We try to go out there, play in the right spirit, play with a smile on our face,” Boult said. You can’t ask for more.
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