It was a bit late — maybe too late, we’ll know soon enough — but it certainly wasn’t too little. As if swapping out body doubles for the originals, the real India turned up in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, portraying the brand of cricket that’s uniquely theirs in all competitions beyond World Cups (for the last decade at least).
Comprehensive losses to Pakistan and New Zealand had exposed massive chinks in India’s armour. Most concerning was the disappointing lack of commitment to aggression, anathema to their skipper’s organic on-field persona. After the humbling loss to the Kiwis, an inevitable consequence of posting an abysmal 110 for seven, Virat Kohli had confessed that his team hadn’t been brave enough.
As if stung by those words, the batsmen summoned a powerhouse display on easily the best surface of the T20 World Cup. Kohli himself wasn’t required to come to the crease, the ultimate testament to the dominance of his colleagues. His deputy, Rohit Sharma, set the tone alongside opening partner KL Rahul, after which ball-bashers Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya took over.
With all due respect to those two sides, India’s opponents weren’t Namibia or Scotland, the two weakest sides in Group 2 of the Super 12s. Up against them were Afghanistan, a team that knows neither fear nor nerves. Brought up in the middle of war and strife and unrest, the cricket ground is almost an escape for these courageous men who must inwardly be laughing every time cricket and pressure are mentioned in the same breath.
Keith Miller, the charismatic Australian all-rounder, put cricket and life in perspective many years back. Flight Lieutenant Miller was a fighter pilot who flew missions for the Allies in World War II over Germany and Occupied France in his Mosquito; he was also a man who spoke his mind.
“Pressure?” he once counter-questioned. “There’s no pressure in Test cricket. Real pressure is when you are flying a Mosquito with a Messerschmitt (German fighter aircraft) up your arse!”
Afghanistan’s cricketers aren’t similarly eloquent but unquestionably, they share the same sentiment as Miller. They have seen so much — and so much hardship — that they don’t allow themselves to be shackled by the prospect of defeat on the cricket field. They know only one way to play — with passion and gusto and positivity and aggression. If they die by the sword, they don’t mind it. Just so long as they aren’t limp and timid.
They are also a very talented, skillful side. In Rashid Khan, they have arguably the best white-ball spinner in the world. They have a versatile pace attack and an explosive batting line-up that is only just waking up to the reality that there are other ways of scoring runs than just boundaries. They are feared opponents, the banana peel everyone is wary of.
India couldn’t afford to be wary of them. They had played such poor cricket in their two opening encounters, that they were forced to tear a page off the Afghan book of entertainment. They didn’t just need to win, they needed to win by a massive margin to salvage their net run-rate, the first step towards resuscitating a slippery campaign. Afghanistan wouldn’t roll over and lose; India had to conquer them through the same combination of brain and brawn that had eluded them all tournament.
Two things went India’s way after Kohli got the business of losing yet another toss out of the way. One, the Afghans were without Mujeeb Ur Rehman, their wonderful ‘mystique’ spinner, still injured. Mujeeb had been outstanding in the first two matches, controlling the Powerplay and striking early blows. Without him, Afghanistan were handicapped even though Rashid lay in wait once the field restrictions were lifted.
Two, in direct contrast to the questionable decks in Dubai, a beautiful batting strip greeted them at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium. It was just the kind of track that encouraged hitting through the line, hitting on the up, hitting with the confidence that the ball wouldn’t sit on the track or trickle rather gush onto the bat. It was also just the invitation Rohit and Rahul needed to go on the rampage.
Separated by the inclusion for the last game of Ishan Kishan, the two right-handers relished the reunion. Matching each other stroke for stroke, they propelled India to their best Powerplay of the competition, then to their first-century stand. It was the fourth time they were adding 100 or more at the top of the tree in T20Is. It’s unlikely that when they are both on the side, newly appointed head coach Rahul Dravid will even contemplate splitting them up.
Their 140-run alliance, marked by dazzling strokeplay by two of the most elegant, correct, stylish batsmen going, restored the confidence and belief of the batting group. Kohli swiftly sent the muscle men ahead of himself, and neither Pant nor Pandya disappointed. When the dust settled after 20 manic overs, India had stormed to 210 for two, a success for fearlessness spawned by a touch of desperation. This is the template India must adopt going forward if they are to not be left behind in the T20 stakes; they may not enjoy the same results, but it’s better to lose trying than not try at all.
There was only one winner at the halfway stage. The bigger point of interest was the margin, how much India could redeem the run-rate. They needed to win by 63 to get that into the blue, the final margin was 66. Another box ticked.
Kohli was to say later that it was the (successful) return to T20I cricket, after five years, of R Ashwin that gave him the greatest joy; it’s another matter that he chose not to use his authority to bring the offie earlier. Ashwin was on top of his game with his eclectic mix of this, that and the other. Having recalled him, India should have played him earlier. Maybe a bit late, even too late. But what Ashwin did wasn’t too little, no way.