Mumbai: It’s adverse situations that test the true character of a team in sports. After being outplayed by Pakistan and New Zealand in the last two matches, India crushed Afghanistan and showcased why they are the powerhouse in the world of cricket. In a crunch, ‘do or die’ game, India came up with a clinical, almost flawless performance that outclassed Afghanistan in all three departments. As they played in the dominant fashion that fans expect of them, India kept their slim hopes of reaching the T20 World Cup semi-finals alive. For a cricket-crazy nation, there was finally something to cheer on the eve of Diwali as the Indian stars set up a sparkling show, especially with the bat.
The turnaround in fortunes came with getting the team combination right. Though Virat’s horrendous luck with the toss continued, things looked a lot better as India finally got Ashwin into the playing XI and found a more balanced side for the game. It reflected a change in mindset and with Suryakumar Yadav also coming back in place of Ishan Kishan, the batting looked stronger.
It is well-known that Indian batting is top-heavy, relies a lot on the ‘Top 3’ to build a solid foundation, and then goes berserk in the latter part of the innings. Hitman Rohit Sharma and fast-improving KL Rahul came up with a tremendous opening partnership. Their flop show in previous matches had triggered Indian defeats. This time the duo made amends and showed great intent right from the first over. The one important factor that India had missed in the tournament so far was a regular rotation of strikes but this time both the openers looked busy, keeping the dot balls to a minimum.
Once the foundation was laid with a steady start, Rohit cut loose with a flurry of boundaries. Since 2017, Rohit has hit 15 T20 international 50s – and India has won all of those matches. With their sparkling 140 run stand, Rohit (74) and Rahul (69) had virtually deflated the opposition morale.
After the openers got out, it was the ‘Pant and Pandya’ show who were promoted ahead of Virat Kohli. As the Captain watched from the pavilion, the two young hitters lit up the Indian innings with power hitting of the highest quality. The left-hand right-hand combination took India to a dominant 210/2 – the highest score of this World Cup.
Given the daunting target, Afghanistan crumbled under pressure. Fittingly, it was Shami who got India its first breakthrough and as Bumrah picked up the second wicket, Afghanistan was decisively pegged back. Ashwin, who was playing in the shorter format after a long gap, tightened the noose and picked up 2 for 14 in his 4 overs and showed exactly what India had been missing. By bringing in Ashwin, an acknowledgement was made that the think-tank is open to rectifying its faults. It’s the flexibility of mind that is much needed in the dynamic T20 format.
Why Ash was kept out on wickets where all quality spinners were succeeding is a million-dollar question. Was the blunder based on any cricketing logic? Was it Kohli-Shastri bias that kept India’s top spinner out as in the England trip? These questions will continue to haunt India as the fear of elimination before the semi-finals still loom large.
While Bumrah’s bowling was penetrative even in the 2 matches India lost, it was most heartening to see Shami’s return to form. As he picked three wickets, he seemed to be getting back into rhythm, something that was missing especially after the Pakistan batsmen tore his bowling apart. As that was followed by a psychological battering which he suffered through the shameful, hate-filled trolling on social media, Shami looked shaky against the Kiwis. But before Afghanistan, his spell was sharp and incisive and is likely to do wonders for his confidence.
It was a comprehensive victory in the end and there is now a chance to sneak past both Afghanistan and New Zealand on net run rate. But India leaked runs at the end to shorten their winning margin which still points to the need for further balancing the playing 11. With Hardik back to bowling, Shardul can be axed to make way for a spinner – either Varun Chakravarthy or Rahul Chahar. Given that most wickets are playing low and slow aiding spinners, it’s time to have 3 spinners.
Despite the big win, India may still not be able to get to the semi-finals. Ironically, they need a miracle from the team they have just beaten. If Afghanistan can surprise New Zealand only then can India squeeze through. But that is a long shot. However, India’s class is obvious in the one-sided way they crushed Afghanistan – a team that ran table-toppers Pakistan quite close in their game.
For the moment, Team India has given something for the nation to cheer on Diwali. Had they sparkled a little earlier, the road to glory in the World Cup would have been easily lit up. As things stand, Cricket lovers in India will be praying overtime on Diwali for a miracle to keep their team alive in the competition.