Exit doors loom large after India get beaten at its own game

This second straight crushing loss at the T20 World Cup has ended India’s qualification prospects for all practical purposes

If Pakistan had exposed India’s fallibility against quality left-arm pace at the top of the innings, New Zealand laid threadbare the soft underbelly that is the batting on sluggish pitches. Photo PTI file

‘Not brave enough.’ That’s how Virat Kohli described India’s second no-show with the bat at the T20 World Cup. On a night when many things went wrong for his side, that’s one thing the Indian skipper got dead right.

New Zealand came focused, prepared, switched on from the get-go. India were limp and tentative, their body language oozing uncertainty and hesitation, a direct reflection of the clutter in their minds. Once Kane Williamson called right at the coin toss – maybe India should consider sending someone apart from the skipper for the ceremonial duty – only one result seemed likely, barring the unforeseen.

It’s now well established that, especially in 20-over cricket, India’s batsmen struggle to impose themselves unless in the flattest, least demanding conditions. Anyone doubting the veracity of that statement need only cast their eyes on the second half of IPL 2021, played on surfaces similar to those on offer at the World Cup and where no one apart from KL Rahul batted with any measure of comfort and assurance.

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If Pakistan had exposed India’s fallibility against quality left-arm pace at the top of the innings, New Zealand laid threadbare the soft underbelly that is the batting on sluggish pitches. It’s amazing how, despite playing so much franchise cricket, India have yet to crack this crucial puzzle. Any timidity is bound to be mercilessly exposed by a team as ruthless as New Zealand. The otherwise nice men of world cricket grow venomous fangs on the cricket field – without the attendant snarling and cussing. Once they sensed that India’s batsmen were busy tying themselves up in knots, they charged ahead to rain a flurry of punches which within the confines of the boxing ring would have compelled the referee to step in and stop the contest.

There is a reason New Zealand hold such a dominating record – 12-3 — against India in ICC competitions. They respect the Indians, but are not intimidated by them. They weren’t when Sourav Ganguly was captain, they weren’t when Mahendra Singh Dhoni was captain, and they sure aren’t when Kohli is at the helm. They trust their processes and game plans and are secure in the knowledge that they have the personnel to implement those plans to perfection. India seem to have regressed in the confidence and self-belief stakes. It’s a hopelessly one-sided equation, neither New Zealand’s eight-wicket romp in Dubai on Sunday night nor the manner in which it was fashioned any great surprise.

It’s debatable how much attention India paid to the Australia-England clash at the same venue, on the same deck, 24 hours previously. Or, if they did, what learnings they took from it. True, there wasn’t the same lateral movement available to the New Zealand quicks as to Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan, but it was apparent that the same lack of pace that characterised Saturday’s proceedings would spill over to the following day. Armed with the knowledge, India should have come better prepared, especially in these days of data processing and analysis and with a plethora of backroom staff at their command, including new addition Dhoni as the mentor. Instead, they were shockingly below par, addled minds and hesitant feet contributing to low-percentage decision-making which came with the most disastrous consequences.

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This second straight crushing loss has ended India’s qualification prospects for all practical purposes. It’s all fine to point out that there are three matches remaining, that India can still make a strong pitch by defeating Afghanistan, Scotland and Namibia handsomely in those games. The fact of the matter is that on current form, India will be hard pressed to merely put it past the courageous, intrepid Afghans on Wednesday, let alone convincingly. Defeats with 13 and 33 deliveries against Pakistan and the Kiwis respectively have saddled India with a net run rate of -1.60.9. That’s so far behind New Zealand’s 0.765, let alone Afghanistan’s 3.097, that even if they win their remaining games and Afghanistan defeat New Zealand to facilitate a three-way tie on six points, India are most likely to miss out on making it to the last four.

A large crowd at the Dubai International Stadium and millions on global television could scarcely believe that India, formidable India with Rahul and Kohli and Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya, could only muster 110 for seven in their full complement. How could that be even possible? A scoring rate of 5.5 is scoffed at even in 50-over cricket. As well as New Zealand’s impressive assortment of pace and spin bowled, were they so good that a batting line-up talked up as among the most feared in the world couldn’t manage even a run a ball?

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New Zealand were exceptional, make no mistake. Sure, the rub of the green went their way, starting with the toss. On another evening, Ishan Kishan’s pick-up stroke off a very ordinary Trent Boult delivery would have gone six inches to the left or right of the long-leg fielder instead of straight into his breadbasket. But that’s how the dice rolls. New Zealand made the most of the odd slice of fortune that came their way. India didn’t – Rohit was spared the ignominy of a second consecutive first-ball duck when Adam Milne put down the easiest of chances at long-leg but failed to cash in. Perhaps therein lies the nub of the matter.

For the second T20 World Cup match in a row, New Zealand used spin to undermine India. In Nagpur, Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi weaved such a tantalising web that even a target of 127 was well beyond the reach of the hosts in 2016. This night, leg-spinner Sodhi celebrated his 29th birthday in grand style with the scalps of Rohit and Kohli, successes that earned him the Player of the Match award. Santner, who had walked away with this honour five-and-a-half years back, was the perfect foil, conceding just 15 from four tidy overs of left-arm spin. Quicker bowlers Boult, Tim Southee and Adam Milne did their job, but it was the grip of the spinners that defied logic. India were beaten at their own game; now, the exit door looms large.