KL Rahul has spent a lot of time in the last few years swivel-pulling some of the best fast bowlers in the world over deep square leg. It’s been one of those go-to shots for the opener where every sinew of his being comes together in a perfect rhythm, even against someone like Jasprit Bumrah.
So when Tim Southee dug one short at 134kmph in the sixth over, Rahul got into a familiar position in a bid to help the ball to a familiar destination. Except, he found Daryll Mitchell – the only fielder in the deep – a few yards inside the boundary. A flabbergasted look on Rahul’s face before walking off with a repeated shake of a bowed down head typified India’s batting day – where best-laid intentions were thoroughly betrayed by woeful execution.
“Quite bizarre. To be brutal upfront, I don’t think we were brave enough with the bat or ball. We obviously didn’t have much to play with the ball. We were just not brave enough in our body language when we entered the field and New Zealand had better intensity, body language,” Virat Kohli opined in the post-match presentation, before laying out the clincher in his sombre post-mortem of the batting no-show.
“Every time we took a chance, we lost a wicket. That happens in T20 cricket, but that’s most probably or most often the result of that little bit of hesitation with the bat, when you feel like ‘should you go for the shot or not?”
India had seen enough of the Dubai trend in their week off after the Pakistan fixture, so they sent out a new opening pair. Kishan’s inclusion was a forced one – due to Suryakumar Yadav’s back spasm – but in him and Rahul, India had two batsmen that very recently went after unimaginable equations in a desperate, late dash for playoffs qualification for their respective IPL sides.
Kishan’s 32-ball 84 and Rahul’s 42-ball 98 were, if anything, an indication that India hedged their bets on the most winnable horses for the course.
But, unfortunately for them, that’s not how the T20 cookie crumbles. Such is the format that the odds of the pair finding success with such an unrelenting and risky approach a month ago was as uncanny as them being nipped in the bud early by New Zealand.
India were already backed into the corner by the conditions siding with the team bowling first, before Kane Williamson’s bowlers threw in a couple of early knockout punches to secure the fixture. Three overs before Rahul found Mitchell at deep square leg, Kishan found him too, at deep backward square leg with a fierce but futile flick off Trent Boult.
Rahul’s dismissal was doubly deflating for India, as it came right after Rohit Sharma snatched the PowerPlay momentum via a 15-run over off Adam Milne.
It meant India entered the potential game-changing middle-overs rather groggily and had Kohli and Rohit up against an unfavourable match-up in Mitchell Santner and an India slayer in Ish Sodhi. The tension of once again having to quickly resuscitate the innings after a dreary start was palpable, and it showed in the tentative strokeplay.
Between Rohit dragging an innocuous short delivery from Sodhi straight to long on and Virat Kohli getting sucked into attempting a slog sweep off a tossed up delivery spinning further away from him, India’s innings unravelled quickly. India’s woes were compounded by Williamson’s immaculate in-game management – as his bowlers choked them dry by bowling as many as 53 dots in all and not conceding a single boundary between overs 7 and 15 – a first for the tournament.
Sodhi admitted at the halfway stage that they were surprised that the pitch played out as slowly as it did, and took more turn when he and Santner bowled a lot slower through the air. The quicks too got the ball to stop a bit off the pitch, rendering India’s strokemaking exercise rather cumbersome and largely ineffective. Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya and Shardul Thakur too were victims of attempted big shots gone wrong, capping off the disjointed batting effort that just about dragged India past the three-figure mark.
Conditions and the quality of the opposition bowling attacks notwithstanding, India’s two losses are an indication that they are perhaps not greater than the sum of their parts in this format. Yet, now more than ever, there’s a need to acknowledge the impact that the unforgiving scheduling in such distressing times amid bubble-hopping has had on performances.
India have been on the road since early July, playing high-intensity Test cricket in England before quickly switching formats for the second leg of IPL 2021. Such has been the scheduling quagmire that India’s last T20I assignment before this World Cup – the tour of Sri Lanka in July – had to be played by the second-string squad (with the exception of Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Suryakumar Yadav and Varun Chakravarthy).
“Sometimes you need a break. You miss your family. You’ve been on the road for six months. All of that sometimes plays on your mind,” Bumrah reckoned. “But when you’re on the field you don’t think about all of those things. You don’t control a lot of things like how the scheduling goes on or what tournament is played when. Obviously staying in the bubble and staying away from your family for a long period of time does play a role in the player’s mind as well but BCCI is also trying their best to make us feel comfortable.
“But this is the time we’re living in right now, there’s a pandemic going on. We tried to adapt but sometimes bubble fatigue and mental fatigue also creeps in when you’re doing the same thing again and again and again. So yeah, it is the way it is, and you can’t control a lot of things.”
A week ago, Kohli left the Dubai International Stadium with a few smiles and warm exchanges with the Pakistan players, while admitting that his team made a false start and knew exactly how to find their way up. After Sunday, the mood was far more morose, the worry lines more prominent, as India slipped to what now potentially looks like a point of no return.
The sun hasn’t set on India’s campaign yet, but it’ll take three fairly big wins and a couple of other results going their way to keep Kohli’s first and last stint as captain in a T20 World Cup alive.