Rishabh Pant: From almost an enigma to audacious match-winner
8 Mar 2021
Establishing what their side is capable of pulling off in the white-ball format, Eoin Morgan’s trounced India in the opening game to start the series on a dominant note.
There have been contrasting traits of both sides on their ‘approach’ towards the shortest format, and the stark contrast could not have been more visible on the night of March 12 at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad. Whatever could have gone wrong for the hosts went terribly wrong for them, while the tourists were brilliant in all their moves and justified their dominant position on the ICC Rankings for T20Is.
Chasing a below-par score of 126 runs, Jason Roy looked like a man on the mission who may have got offended for being unsold in the IPL auction that took place last month. He was preferred probably due to his perceived weakness against spin bowling, and hence the first victim of his onslaught was Yuzvendra Chahal who was to be the trump card for Kohli.
The move to attack Chahal was calculated one by Roy as Kohli relied on the surface to be another turner and played three spinners to reap the best advantage. However, Roy took it upon himself to make a resounding statement that the trial by spin was over in the Test series, and the players who are here for the white-ball leg of the tour are a different kettle of fish.
Kohli looked like a confused captain who was lost after suffering a collapse in the batting effort in the first innings. He played Washington Sundar along with Axar Patel as the two extra spinners other than Chahal, but Washington Sundar was kept away from bowling in a move that appeared as a hangover from the Test series where his skills were not considered worthy enough, while Axar bowled ahead of him. Ironically, Kohli has been Washington’s skipper in the IPL where he bowls the majority of his overs in powerplays and has an astounding economy rate.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar looked rusty with the ball and lacked both swing and control with the new ball against the pair of Buttler and Roy who had the luxury of taking time in pursuit of a relatively lower score for their standards.
The second pacer—Shardul Thakur started off his spell with good control over his line but lacked incisive edge over batsmen to trouble in such a small chase. Hardik Pandya, whose returning to bowling was widely anticipated showed signs of a bowler who is short of overs under his belt and India were left flummoxed and bamboozled against an all-strength England side.
The struggles of Test matches were left far behind and it could not have been explained in any better ways than Jonny Bairstow coming in at number four position to tonk spinners Chahal and Washington over the ropes with such ease that would have left many fans bewildered if they were watching the same Bairstow in whites against Indian spinners.
Earlier in the evening, Kohli’s tryst with the toss continued even with the white ball as Morgan won the toss to send them in. England opted for an all-pace attack with Adil Rashid as the lone spinner in the line-up, while India opted for a spin-heavy attack. The contrasting team selection was reminiscent of the final Test between the two sides, and the jury was out on who got it right in terms of selection in the final selection of the series.
Fair to say, in the end, Morgan outclassed his counterpart in selecting only one spinner as his pacers bowled their heart out and rattled Indian batsmen with pace and bounce off the surface.
Kohli had on the previous day publicly accepted that their batting approach in the shortest format has been found wanting in the shortest format and that they will look to revamp it starting with the series England.
The sense of ambiguity around the decision-making process remained with Kohli’s method in the first T20 as well with Dhawan and Rahul selected to open the batting as the team decided to rest Rohit for a couple of games. Kohli had said that Dhawan was the third opener and was to get chances when either Rohit or Rahul was to miss out due to injury concerns or resting, but none would have expected that the rest for Rohit will come in the very first game of the series.
Dhawan must have been under enormous pressure to remain in the reckoning of the team management knowing that Rohit would walk in the team whenever the team decides, and Rahul has been too consistent with the bat to be replaced.
All the talk and rhetoric about fearless mindset and revamped approach in bating were not evident in the first over as both Dhawan and Rahul looked scratchy with the bat. To be fair to them, morgan stumped them with a brilliant tactic to introduce Adil Rashid in the powerplay and clearly, neither of them looked to be ready for a probable out of syllabus question from the opposition.
Jofra Archer has been a phenomenal force with the new ball in IPL, but not for England in T20Is, but he had his eyes set on course correction. The pace was right up there and his signature steep bounce off the back of length areas was evident with the new ball as he dismissed KL Rahul and rattled Virat Kohli in his very first over that ended as a wicket-maiden over.
Tight overs from Rashid and Archer mounted pressure on Kohli, who appeared not to be backing down from the aggressive mindset he had promised a day before and appeared attempting to walk his talk. Rashid was smart enough for him on the night and Kohli’s desperation for quick runs handed England another success fairly early in the innings.
If Archer’s bounce was not challenging enough for the Indians, Morgan had a real thunderbolt in the form of Mark Wood in store for the hosts. Dhawan really looked all over the place against a really quick first spell from Wood and ended up walking back to the pavilion having played an ugly heave across the line of Wood.
India were caught off guard even before they could start off with the bat, but Rishabh Pant who has earned a recall into the T20 team on the basis of his recent form in the Test format made sure to capitalise on the opportunities he got at the number four position.
There is no limit to Pant’s insanity in terms of shot selection as he pulled out yet another jaw-dropping reverse scoop off Archer’s delivery bowled around 140 kmph which England batting legend Kevin Pietersen rated as the best shot played ever in the history of the game. However, he could not get going after a six and four off Archer and when he found the fielder at deep square leg after a sluggish innings, India’s hopes of a competitive total suffered a serious setback.
The number four slot in the batting order where Shreyas Iyer used to bat in the last few series was a contentious issue among fans and commentariat as more than one contenders emerged fitting for the position. Mumbai’s Suryakumar Yadav finally hammered the door of selection down to get a call up while Ishan Kishan who promises a lot of fireworks with the bat also got a look in for the series in order to rejuvenate the middle order.
For the first match though, Kohli went with the tried skills and offerings of Iyer who must have been under enormous pressure with the likes of Yadav and Kishan waiting for an opportunity to pounce on and also due to his own lack of runs in the previous series against Australia.
The situation of India losing too many early wickets could not be bigger for Iyer to establish the solidity he offers to the batting order as he relied on his timing and immaculate placements to steer India towards some sort of respectable total in the opening game. His backdoor game was exposed in Australia, and Morgan too was eager to ask him tough questions with pacers measuring the length of his throat. However, he also got deliveries on his hips which he capitalised on to get going.
He was the lone warrior with the bat for India as even the reliable Hardik Pandya who has been one of the main architects of India’s win in the recent past failed to rise to the occasion.
India were left lacking clarity on the objectives they wanted to achieve in the first game. Openers did not show enough eagerness of proactive batting while Kohli lost his wicket in the desperation of quick runs.
In the end, the game turned out to be a nightmare game for a side that has appeared lacking clarity of thoughts on the style of cricket they want to play in the shortest format, and the England side which is as clear-headed as side can be punished them for having cluttered head and ambiguity.
For both sides, the outcome of the series does not hold that greater value contextually as they are using these games to reach their best as a squad, but needless to say, India were left with more questions than answers in their first journey on to the path leading up to the World T20.