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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

India vs England: Mountain becomes molehill

Bairstow and Stokes make mockery of big Indian total as England level ODI series.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: March 27, 2021 7:44:59 am
Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow in action during England's second ODI against India. (BCCI)

England’s most prolific opening pair and arguably their finest limited-overs all-rounder combined to make a mockery of what used to be regarded as a monumental target. A total of 336/6, on most days, is unsurpassable, and even if it is surpassed, teams pant and puff to the finish line, like after a marathon. But England sprinted home, reaching the target with nearly 6.3 overs to spare and six wickets in hand.

The Indian innings was built round KL Rahul’s classy hundred, Virat Kohli’s customary half-century, Rishabh Pant’s blitzkrieg and Hardik Pandya’s late assault. It seemed a sizeable challenge for England. But apart from a momentary stutter in a Prasidh Krishna over — when the seamer nipped out Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler — there was hardly any drama in their chase. Bairstow, who reeled out 124 off 112 balls, and Jason Roy (55 from 52 balls) put on a blistering 110 runs for the opening stand in 102 balls, before Bairstow and Ben Stokes (99 from 52) put India’s bowlers to the sword with an exhibition of unalloyed power-hitting that brought 175 runs in 117 balls.

There were some nerves when Rohit Sharma affected the run- out of the rampaging Roy, who smeared and smacked India’s bowlers with utter disdain. On Tuesday, England had imploded dramatically after a searing start. Moreover, Stokes is a nervous starter, has looked uncharacteristically tetchy on the whole tour and India sensed an impending flurry of wickets. There was an anticipated lull, only that the English pair was coiling up for the big explosion, loading up their cache and accumulating their supplies.

Quiet before the storm

So, Stokes and Bairstow were happy stealing the odd single or demolishing the loose balls, which there were dime a dozen. And once they sensed the time was ripe, there was a demonstration of clinical power-hitting, more in tune with Calypso than classical English folk riffs.

The onslaught began with the dismembering of Kuldeep Yadav, who ambled in for his second spell after India had tightened the game by conceding just 16 runs in the four previous overs. The left-arm wrist-spinner had put in a gritty shift in his spell, five overs costing fewer than six runs an over. His next two weren’t too expensive either — a ledger of 40 runs in seven overs is quite decent in this format these days. Yadav was fired up more than ever before, grunting in his release, flinging his body when fielding, and nearly evicting Stokes with a direct hit, saved only by the thinnest strand of Stokes’ bat.

But he had little clue of the mayhem that was to be unleashed on him. Off the first ball of his eighth over, Bairstow cleared his front leg and blasted him over midwicket to reach his century. Stokes then blasted him over his head for another six, followed by a boundary. The 17-run release over went a long way in shifting the momentum towards England.

After much discussion and deliberation, skipper Kohli decided to persist with Yadav. Turned out to be a mistake, as Stokes knocked the living daylights out of him, denting his already dented self-belief. He thundered the tweaker for three successive flat sixes — each like a scything hack of an axe more than a willow – in a 20-run over. Stokes can be a brilliant timer of the cricket ball, but here he was sheer muscle and power. Krunal Pandya too was not spared of six-hitting blushes, as Stokes rounded off his tally with 10 monstrous hits. Add seven Bairstow bludgeoned, a brace by Liam Livingstone and one by Roy, they seemed like the West Indies team in disguise. To go with their 20 sixes, they belted 24 boundaries.

Strength or weakness?

India’s spinners collectively conceded a whopping 156 runs in 16 overs without even looking remotely capable of bargaining a wicket. India dearly missed a wicket-taking spinner. India packed two wrist-spinners into their 2019 World Cup squad. Yadav, at that time, was a credible wicket-taking outlet; Yuzvendra Chahal was wreaking havoc too. Both have relatively diminished — Yadav more so. So the wicket-taking avenues blocked, it becomes a case of picking the right balls to attack. A fraction full, a dot short, they were rampantly despatched for boundaries to release the pressure without embracing risk.

It’s worth arguing that Pandya and Yadav (in this wretched form) are not the most lethal pair of spinners at India’s arsenal, but their inability to take wickets is worrying nonetheless, especially for a country that has immense depth in most departments. Ravindra Jadeja’s return could solve half the issue, but at least in India, the team requires another reliable wicket-taking spinner to operate along with him. Chahal, on bright days, can sparkle, but of late, dark days have been interspersing more frequently with the good ones. From the tour of New Zealand, he has picked 30 wickets in 19 games at an average of 35, besides leaking 6.07 runs an over. So, he is not as bankable as he once used to be.

The rest of the recent recruits like Washington Sundar and Axar Patel are not quite wicket-taking ones while Rahul Chahar is a study in progress. The unprecedented crisis, though, could brighten the possibility of Ravichandran Ashwin’s comeback. He hasn’t played white-ball cricket for his country in nearly four years, but his wicket-taking skills are – beyond a speck of doubt – incredible.

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