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India avoid the Afghani banana peel, but only just

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Roar Rookie
23rd June, 2019
6

Even from here Down Under, miles away from the Rose Bowl Cricket Ground, I could hear a big, collective sigh of relief as India avoided the proverbial banana peel against Afghanistan int he World Cup.

The pitch was the main reason these two teams of seemingly different ability appeared close. This was a Subcontinent wicket with the spongy English bounce. While it was frustrating for the current generation batsmen, who love hitting through the line, it was a good test of their skills, and only one batsman came through with flying colours: Virat Kohli.

Kohli’s innings was a masterclass. His teammates will do well to keep a video of this game on their mobile and watch it before every match. It was a lesson in how to counter very good spin or, more aptly, a slow bowling challenge, without taking risks. Fours and sixes are not required to score at an over 100 per cent run rate if you play proper cricket shots, stay in control of where you want to place the ball and rotate the strike.

But Kohli’s masterclass was not so because of the wicket only. Afghan spinners were sensational. They bowled at the right pace and landed them just short and within the stumps. It was a perfect plan against an Indian batting line up that is largely unsure against the ball that doesn’t come on to the bat.

Virat Kohli.

(Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

The obvious inability of the past generation of Indian batsmen to counter pace and bounce and a clear attempt at producing wickets with some pace and movement off the track in Indian domestic circuit is the reason we see lots more quality fast bowlers and players who handle pace well from India. But this has come at the cost of losing that intrinsic Indian ability to play spin well.

VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir were brought up in a different environment. That’s where Kohli’s ability as a 360-degree player comes through. Against a brilliant spell of spin – or what is perhaps more aptly described as slow bowling – all Indian batsmen except Kohli and to a lesser extent Kedar Jadhav have struggled to dominate the bowling.

I thought 250-plus was a winning score here for the Indian bowling, but the Indian batsmen’s inability to rotate the strike meant they ended up being about 20 to 30 short of that.

What India lacked with the bat was brilliantly compensated for by the bowlers and fielders. If the first innings was a masterclass of how to use the pace of the wicket to keep some of the most explosive batsmen in check through slow bowling, the second half was all about using the variation in the pace and bounce to control the innings. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami started brilliantly and kept coming throughout the innings to wrest the initiative back from the batting side by taking wickets at crucial junctures. In between both Indian wrist spinners kept control over the run rates while looking threatening all the time.

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Afghan batsmen are not as skilled as their Indian counterparts, but they applied themselves very well to stitch together partnerships that brought the game to the brink. It was the persistence and the experience of the Indian bowling unit that came through. I suspect a more experienced opponent would have won this game after good partnerships that were built.

Afghanistan will consider this as one that got away, while India will just breath a sigh of relief.

Elsewhere, I was amazed Vijay Shankar wasn’t given a single over. On such a slowish deck his seam-up bowling would have been harder than Hardik Pandya’s quicker deliveries to score off. Hardik bowled okay – his second spell was reasonably skilful – but his inconsistency was a weak link.

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I could understand Kohli not using Kedar Jadhav in a crunch situation, but not using a genuine seam bowling option, especially to replace one who is looking a bit suspect, was a baffling tactic from the skipper. He needs to remember that last time India won the World Cup in England it was those 120-kilometre-per-hour seamers from Jimmy Amarnath that clinched it for them.

Virat Kohli at training.

(Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Two Indian batsmen who did the hard yards threw it away at a crunch time – KL Rahul and Vijay Shankar had both controlled themselves well to get their eye in, but Rahul’s reverse sweep disaster was more ridiculous than simply a poor choice. There was absolutely no need for that.

He and Kohli had a good partnership going – Virat was playing superbly and Rahul had to merely rotate the strike. But KL seemed to be having a slight problem with his mental approach. He wants to dominate and partnership, and his quest for personal glory comes ahead of the team interest. It’s this sudden urge to express himself that brought about the downfall of this very talented batsman. Unfortunately, this has happened too often to be ignored.

Rahul and Pandya are similar in many ways. Not for nothing, the shrewd Karan Johar picked this pair from the India team to get some sensationalising titbits for his show. It says something about the wavering focus that both these talented players need to control to continue to be an asset.

Another similar lost opportunity was Vijay Shankar’s innings. He too threw away a good start, though perhaps in his case you could give some credit to the bowler who may have deceived him with the tight line and the drop landing slightly shorter than the batsman judged. Both these dismissals brought India’s total down from what could have been above 250.

Champions do not slacken their grip like this, especially after working hard to get an upper hand. I reckon both left Kohli high and dry. I am sure the team management will discuss this with both suitably.

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Meanwhile, MS Dhoni was struggling not only to get the ball away but to rotate the strike as well. He looked unsure and appeared to be lacking in confidence against the tight stump-to-stump slow bowling. The curtain coming down on the career of one of the all-time greats in the game seems imminent.

On such a wicket Ravindra Jadeja would be very handy, more than Kuldeep Yadav. I hope team management think of this option if they see a similar wicket.

Kohli’s captainship is still a work in progress – he needs to develop confidence in the capabilities of players other than his kingpins. While he won this game through four brilliant bowlers, his reluctance to be flexible on the fifth could come back to bite him against more experienced opposition.

The World Cup is finally alive. There could have been three upsets in a space of 24 hours, with the West Indies giving the Kiwis a run for their money. The semi-finalists are no longer certain.