Eight months down the line, we may well be back at the Motera. The Narendra Modi Stadium will be choked to capacity, hopefully, and the 2021 T20 World Cup final shall be the grand occasion. Who would you expect to contest that summit clash? India versus England won’t be such a bad bet.
Saturday night was a mini dress rehearsal, if it can be said so. From the get going, both these sides underlined just how vital this bilateral extended (five-match) T20I series was. Make no mistake, England may have lost the rubber 3-2, but the manner in which they lost sets them apart. Whether with bat or ball, it sets them as T20 World Cup contenders. Of course, like any other team, they are not yet the finished product with the second spinner role a key point to ponder over for Eoin Morgan.
India, too, are T20 World Cup contenders. Home to the grandest and best T20 domestic competition, they always have been and always will be. It is just a matter of bringing out the sum of all variables together, and this has been the focal point for the Men in (dark) Blue. From the first game to the fifth, their evolution as a T20I side has been obvious.
Whenever they build towards an ICC event, one of the key parameters for India is to make sure they look up all possible permutations and combinations. In that light, it wasn’t surprising that KL Rahul was dropped for this final encounter. Only, the selection choice was worthy of a curved, raised eyebrow, especially with Ishan Kishan still unavailable.
Let it be said here, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli is a batting partnership for the ages. They are almost similar in the manner they build an innings – accumulation over explosion. And they are devastating when set – nobody accelerates quite like Rohit, and Kohli has upped his power game (strike-rate of 200 since 2019) whenever he scored a T20I half-century. Their approach to this devastation in this shortest format is dissimilar though, and it is what brings out the potential magic in this new opening pairing.
Take, for example, how they faced England’s fast bowling ploy on Saturday night. Throughout this T20I series, their pacers Mark Wood and Jofra Archer have deployed a back-of-length line, which has troubled batsmen on tougher batting surfaces. On a batting beauty, with even carry and good bounce, two batsmen of the highest calibre got on top of this tactic and used their pace against Wood-Archer themselves.
Rohit hardly goes onto the back foot when pulling, and thus he ends up getting on top of the line of delivery. Kohli, in comparison, got under the line of delivery and used a backfoot swivel for his pull and hook shots. It resulted in a whirlwind partnership – 6 sixes peppering the leg-side boundary between midwicket and square leg, with an additional three boundaries to fill in the gaps.
It is an unconventional opening pairing, one which bowlers the world over must be very wary of. It brings together two of the greatest white-ball batsmen and the leading scorers in this format. Either batsman can happily hold back and play accumulator, or get off to a wild start and press the accelerator down hard.
As a bowler, you know the margin of error reduces twice over.
If Kohli comes in one-down, the opposition can still dictate terms especially if it is an early loss of wicket. With Rohit-Kohli starting off, the bowlers are already on the back-foot, wary of the incoming onslaught. From an Indian perspective, it is a dream pairing. And the timing couldn’t be more suitable – for two matches running, Suryakumar Yadav has shown what he can do at number three.
Imagine Rohit-Kohli breaking down the bowling for 8-10 overs and then the Indian lower order running amok? Well, Saturday was a window into that very time portal – Hardik Pandya was promoted, Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant didn’t even bat. And India put 225 on the board, a par-plus score even on this batting beauty, even against this strong English batting line-up.
Of course, it leaves certain calculations open-ended. Whatever happens to KL Rahul now that Kohli has professed to open the innings more regularly in T20 cricket? What about Ishan Kishan, who only two matches ago, was seemingly the third-choice opener? One thing for sure is that this ploy potentially ends Shikhar Dhawan’s T20I future.
The other domino effect is that it allows India to bring in an additional bowler into the mix. Playing with six bowling options is always recommended in the T20 format, and India look their strongest when exercising this strategy. It allows them to book in three pacers plus Hardik, as well as play three spinners if needed (when Ravindra Jadeja comes back).
In context of this series’ finale on Saturday, perhaps playing the sixth bowler was of greater significance, even more so than Kohli opening. Let us be honest – on that batting beauty, 180-200 was just about par. India got ahead of that curve and England were under pressure from ball one. Even then, Dawid Malan and Jos Buttler kept them in the hunt for nearly 60 per cent of their chase.
Adding T Natarajan to the mix was vital to counter the firepower of this English line-up. It allowed Kohli to hold back one of his pacers (Shardul Thakur in this case), when Malan-Buttler went on the rampage. It was a game of patience then, waiting for the wicket to fall and momentum to dissipate. And that is where Bhuvneshwar Kumar too centre-stage.
Forget that he bowled 17 dot balls for a minute. Forget that he took 2/15 in four overs for just a second. Don’t just consider this match alone, but look through the entire series. From game one to five, Kumar has grown in confidence. He has regained full rhythm, full guile and pace in his bowling. Along with the emergence of Suryakumar and Kishan, along with winning the last two games after losing the toss, Kumar’s return has been one of the key positives for India this past week.
Once Kumar provided the breakthrough, England couldn’t keep up. It happens when you are chasing 220-odd, you need to keep pushing every ball. Nine times of ten the chasing side fails, and this ratio worked in India’s favour. They had no response to Thakur’s slower variations thereafter, nor to the collective strength of India’s six-pronged bowling attack.
Considering the bragging rights at stake, it was a perfect win for India, one that sets them on the path towards the T20 World Cup.
Full scorecard and highlights of 5th T20I