“We are playing in the sixth gear.” For the hawks, skipper MS Dhoni’s statement bordered on overconfidence. When there’s already concern over the team peaking early, the declaration was like touching the danger mark.
For the home fans, their worst fears came true in the World Twenty20 opener against New Zealand at Nagpur on Tuesday night. The aura of this team has been built on their top three – Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli. In the manner of the dismissal of all three, there was a clear hint of complacency.
There was no real pressure on Tuesday when India started out. A target of 126 required a run-a-ball effort, providing time to map the opposition and conditions. A 30-40-run partnership at the start would have put the pressure on the New Zealand bowlers.
With no need for big shots with five runs in the kitty off the first four balls, Dhawan took the risk by trying to sweep Nathan McCullum from the stumps. Inexplicably, Rohit Sharma also stepped out to left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner to be stumped. Virat Kohli had looked at ease against whatever the Kiwi bowlers threw at him. When Kane Williamson introduced leg-spinner Ish Sodhi, Kohli, having got 23 off 26 balls, had the luxury of sizing him up first. But he went for an expansive cover drive, away from the body, first ball to be caught behind.
Even the Kiwi spinners would have been surprised by how easy it turned out. In less than 90 minutes, India went from firm favourites to having to win all their games from here on to enter the semis.
Going ahead, it’s not the top order which would be a concern. The area team director Ravi Shastri will be worried about is the middle and lower-order.
It is natural that the main men suffer an off day, like in Nagpur. With a total of 126, it was the perfect opportunity for Yuvraj Singh and Co to take responsibility and get the job done. Due to the dream run of the top three, the rest of India batsmen were not really tested in the lead-up to the WT20. And the wily New Zealanders exposed the weakness brilliantly. Yuvraj Singh, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin all struggled for rhythm when the onus was on them.
So far, Dhoni had been required to come and straightaway go for the big hits. It is also a challenge and he was coming good. But Dhoni’s job also involves building the innings on days when the top order faltered, where you have to soak in the pressure and counter-attack.
It was one of the great strengths of the 2011 World Cup winning team where in two of the three knockout games, the middle-order came up with invaluable contributions, Raina and Yuvraj in the quarters against Australia and Dhoni in the final against Sri Lanka.
The player under most pressure after the first game will be Yuvraj. He was rarely tested in the three games in Australia, except the last couple of overs in the third T20. In the Asia Cup, he had two good knocks. Hence the opening game was important for him. For such a gifted timer of the ball, his struggle is painful to watch. He seems to be tense and is losing shape when playing his strokes. Only in the two knocks against Sri Lanka and UAE in the Asia Cup did he look in his elements.
With no margin for error, the pressure will be on India in the next game against arch-rivals Pakistan.