In more ways than one the match was a throwback. Not perhaps as far back as the retro days of the blazing yellow jerseys, the replicas of the 1987 World Cup, the Australians wore on Saturday. But the match could easily have been rolled out in the late 90s or the early aughts, rather than the T20 milieu, suffused with eerie similarities to the India-Australia encounters of a distant past. Back when 280s were still stiffening, back when Australian seamers menaced India with the new ball, and back when Indian batting straddled and consoled in futile solo acts.
By uber-modern standards, 288 is a stroll. So there were legitimate reasons for the Indian bowlers, especially for Mohammed Shami, to believe they’d put in an tidy shift. In alliance with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, they chained the Australian top order in a chalice of good old fashioned line-and-length bowling. Maybe, they flagged a bit at the death, but still 289 is not as daunting as it once used to be.
Not least when the Australian pace-pack comprised a new-ball pair with a collective experience of four matches and a long-sidelined seamer playing his first ODI in eight years. But the trio of Jhye Richardson, debutant Jason Behrendorf and Peter Siddle orchestrated a vintage show to rattle the top-order, from which India never really recovered. You can blame MS Dhoni as much as you want for his crawl, or commiserate with Rohit Sharma for his bravado hundred, battling back pain and the steep run-rate, or pinpoint the defeat to the flimsy middle-order.
But the match was won and lost in the first 21 balls of India’s response, when Richardson evicted Virat Kohli and Ambati Rayudu in the space of three deliveries, after Behrendorf had accounted for Shikhar Dhawan in the first over.
Each of the three dismissals had a significant impact on the game other than the obvious reasons. Dhawan’s exit denied India with the breezy starts he’s accustomed to providing them, Rohit soaks time, but Dhawan hits the strides straightaway, delivering the early knockout blows. Kohli, obviously is the best chasing brain in the world. Rayudu’s robbed a review that India were made to repent when Dhoni was harshly adjudged lbw off a delivery that had landed outside the leg-side.
The three early jolts coerced India into the defensive straightway. Both Rohit and Dhoni eschewed anything remotely risky, rather they were weathering the storm ratcheted by a callow but incisive Richardson and Behrendorf.
Neither were tearaways or improvisers, but brisk length-and-line operators who actually bowled more menacingly after they nabbed the first three wickets. All three dismissals could have been largely avoidable with better judgment. Dhawan was caught napping at the one that came off with the seam.
Kohli flicked a harmless leg-side bound ball straight to square-leg. The skipper was livid with himself, for those are freebies that he routinely smashes to the ropes. Rayudu misjudged the line, he was anticipating the ball that would seam in like the one that nailed Kohli, and then injudiciously reviewed.
To repair the innings, Rohit and Dhoni had to leaf through the pages of the pre-1996 World Cup batting manual, rebuilding the shaky edifice with diligence. They crawled to 44/3 by the 15th over, a shade under three runs an overs is sinful in this day and age, withstanding persistent spells by the trio. Richardson consistently hit the top of off-stump, sometimes shaping the ball into the right-handed batsman. Behrendorf hardly afforded width while Siddle was in their face. If it wasn’t the most hostile spell the Indian batsmen had withstood in this tour, it certainly was the most disciplined.
The only relief was that the two in the middle could unleash a calculated assault as they whim, which Rohit occasionally did to Nathan Lyon. The latter might be his Test-match nemesis, but Rohit in blues is a different beast. On a few occasions, Dhoni too dusted up the now-forlorn magic of the past. He rushed out against Lyon and smoked him over long-on, like he had to the same bowler several years ago en route to his only double hundred in Test cricket.
But more often than not, Dhoni’s batting was a reminder of his recent travails, struggling to find gaps and subsequently piling up the dots balls. As many as 60 off the 96 deliveries he faced didn’t yield runs.
Rohit tried to compensate for the old guard’s rustiness with purposeful bursts of aggression. It’s one of his understated gifts, to sense and seize the crucial moments of the game. So when Behrendorff returned for his second spell, he struck a brace of deliveries to dishevel his length, the first was a classic Rohit flick over midwicket, while the second was a dexterous scoop over the keeper.
However, just when the momentum was reversing and Dhoni himself unshackling with a drilled-boundary down the ground to complete his half-century, struck disaster when Dhoni was deemed lbw off a delivery that clearly pitched outside the leg-stump. The famed finisher looked helplessly at Rohit, who gestured the ball was drifting down the leg-side, but the lone review was exhausted long ago and Dhoni’s fleeting renaissance ended.
The narrative was thus set for Rohit to invoke the grand Indian tradition of great individual feats. And what better premise than the hero defying physical pain. For a while, he seemed on course to pull off a heist, and he revealed his intentions with three boundaries off a Siddle over.
The required run-rate spiked over 10 an over, both Dinesh Karthik and Ravindra Jadeja floundered, but as long as Rohit batted hope fluttered in the stands. He lifted their hopes with a six apiece of Lyon and Marcus Stoinis, both of who were his whipping boys.
But in the end, the physical strain got the better of Rohit’s timing, and a back-of-length ball that he would have hefted over ropes looped into the deep-wicket’s hands. A heroic narrative thus ended tragically, like so often in the 90s . And with him departed India’s hopes of seizing an early lead in the series. The lower-order merried their bat around as the tail-enders of a different era. And as the Australians piled up in a scrum at the end of the match, the ground DJ belted out a forgotten pop anthem of the late 90s—Tubthhimbing’s I Get Knocked Down—in resonance with the retro-theme of the evening.