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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Unheralded NZ spinners script India’s downfall by tying them up in knots in must-win game

India lost direction after Kohli's exit, could just put on 110/7, a total New Zealand surpassed with the loss of two wickets and 32 balls in the bank.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: November 1, 2021 8:42:42 am
New Zealand's Ish Sodhi, second left, celebrates the wicket of India's captain Virat Kohli during the Cricket Twenty20 World Cup match between New Zealand and India in Dubai, UAE, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021.

Virat Kohli lingered on, dejectedly and disbelievingly. He had just slog-swept Ish Sodhi into the palms of Trent Boult at long-on. Kohli could not fathom how the ball, a harmless leg-break, could buy his wicket, or in the end, how an average ball could turn out to be the most valuable one in the game.

Sometimes, it’s these not-so-great moments that turn out to be match-turning. The wicket indeed was match-changing. India lost direction after Kohli’s exit, could just put on 110/7, a total New Zealand surpassed with the loss of two wickets and 32 balls in the bank.

It was neither an awesome ball nor an awful shot, but it was neither an awful ball nor an awesome stroke. Maybe, the late dip deceived Kohli. He judged it, but was a trifle early into the stroke and hence could not re-map it. Of all the strokes, the sweep is perhaps the one that is incredibly difficult to change at the last second. Once the batsman is committed, more often than not, there is no exit route. It’s not like the drive which one can check, or defend, or the pull one can weave out of, or again defend. The brake is in the batsman’s hands.

Maybe, the premeditation deceived Kohli. Stifled and strangled for runs by New Zealand’s spinners in the middle overs, Kohli returned from the mid-innings break with the sole intention to unshackle. And perhaps, it was time for some unshackling too. The last time the ball was in the vicinity of the fence was in the sixth over. Forget boundaries, Kohli was struggling for his usual staple of singles and twos, dawdling to 9 off 17 balls with his team in tatters. It was the consequence of some incredibly guileful bowling by Sodhi and his left-arm ally Mitchell Santner, two underestimated but useful bowlers when conditions are favourable. A merchant of thrift and a vendor of wickets.

Most times when New Zealand stride in for a T20I, they are not even afterthoughts. On seaming tracks, their services are redundant; on flat tracks, they could be a baggage. As a consequence, the latest encounter against India was Sodhi’s 59th, despite debuting in 2014; that he has featured in just 186 T20 games overall suggests he has never been a flavour for franchises either. Similarly, Santner had appeared in 53 international games and 107 combined before Sunday, in which he usually bowls an average of three overs.

But give them a turner, or a slow surface, and they suddenly spring to life and put on a Tim Southee-Trent Boult double act. Kohli and some of his colleagues would know better. In the same fixture in the previous World Cup, on a Nagpur Test match-like turner, Santner winkled out four wickets and Sodhi picked up three. Their combined figures that night read 8-0-29-7.

Death by suffocation

Their numbers in Dubai — eight boundary-less overs for 32 runs and the two biggest wickets — were not as heart-stopping, but no less influential. Sodhi read the mind of Indian batsmen like a psychiatrist — had his cricketing career not blossomed, he wanted to be one, he had told So, he second-guessed the probability of Kohli conjuring an extravagant shot straight after the drinks break to straightaway unsettle the bowlers. So, he floated a leg-break, rather than his brisker wrong one, just outside the off-stump and tricked the Indian captain with his dip, the ball landing a few inches shorter than where Kohli had anticipated.

The sprightly leg-spinner has been an uncanny nemesis of Kohli — in fact, no bowler has dismissed him as frequently as Sodhi in T20Is (3). In Nagpur in 2016, he devoured him with a ripping leg-break to be caught behind, while in Hamilton last year, he consumed him with a googly that burst through his defence. After that game, he had outlined his leitmotif when encountering Kohli: “Virat is a batsman you need to constantly attack or else he puts the pressure back on you. You need to come up with plans and be really courageous while bowling to him.”

The wrecking ball in Dubai was indeed courageous; had Kohli stepped out, he could have generated more power and timing. But Sodhi had the gumption to flight the ball outside off-stump. Just as he had the daring to bowl a short ball outside the off-stump at Rohit Sharma, beating him with his own instincts. Rohit pulled out the pull, but the slowness of the pitch allied with the ball turning away from his body hampered his control over the shot. He, invariably, mistimed.

Sodhi has his flaws, oftentimes he can be erratic with length and feed one boundary ball too often, one of the reasons he never bloomed in longer formats. Many a time, his tossed-up balls end up as full-tosses. But if he is held guilty of tossing too much, Santner is often blamed for not flighting the ball enough, especially in longer formats. He is Ravindra Jadeja Mark-1, those early days when was a flat-ball-at-stumps- spitting bowling machine. His pace and flatter trajectory keep batsmen crease-glued. His at-the-stumps precision means it’s difficult to paddle sweep. His fuller lengths assure that he isn’t cuttable. Thus, Indian batsmen were undone by a deathly song of attack and defence.

It’s a paradox too — New Zealand spinners out-witting Indian batsmen in successive World Cup encounters on pitches perceivably favouring the latter. It raises an intriguing question: Are Indian batsmen overstated destroyers of spin bowling, or are New Zealand spinners grossly understated game-changers in the format? Maybe, it was this question that kept twirling and tossing in Kohli’s mind when he lingered on after getting out.

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