India's Bhuvneshwar Kumar, left, watches as captain Virat Kohli, right, reacts after the dismissal of England's Jos Buttler during the fifth Twenty20 cricket match between India and England at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.(AP)
India's Bhuvneshwar Kumar, left, watches as captain Virat Kohli, right, reacts after the dismissal of England's Jos Buttler during the fifth Twenty20 cricket match between India and England at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.(AP)

Virat Kohli, Bhuvaneswar Kumar reveal new ways to dominate

  • India skipper wants to take up the T20 opener's role on a regular basis while the paceman's guile and form on return from injury is promising in the build up to the Oct-Nov T20 World Cup.
By Abhishek Paul, Ahmedabad
UPDATED ON MAR 22, 2021 02:43 PM IST

In the end, the India-England T20I series was worth the hype. Two top-ranked teams fought till the end in what was a dress rehearsal for the October-November T20 World Cup in India.

Even in their 2-3 series defeat on Saturday, after a superlative batting display by India’s latest opening pair Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in the deciding fifth T20I, world No. 1 England looked a far more settled unit. Apart from fielding Tom Curran in the second game, they didn’t tinker much with the side.

The hosts though were up for experiments. It threw up interesting combinations and performances. In the next few months, these changes will be tested.

Kohli’s opening gambit

No one saw it coming. When it did happen, it was hard to find anyone willing to look beyond it. The pairing is one-match old, but it has already been declared a hit after a 96-run partnership.

Till the fourth T20, KL Rahul opened. He partnered Shikhar Dhawan, Ishan Kishan and then Sharma twice. All are regular openers – either for state, IPL or the national team. And out of the blue, Kohli announced he wants to continue batting at the top.

“I have batted at different positions, but I feel like we do have a very solid middle order now. It’s about your two best players getting the maximum number of balls in T20 cricket. So I would definitely like to partner Rohit at the top,” Kohli said on Saturday, after top-scoring with 80*. “I would like this to continue, and hopefully continue that form through to the World Cup.”

Kohli has a point. He has the most T20I runs (3,159 runs) with Sharma a close second (2,864) in the all-time list. Bowling to two of the best limited-overs batsmen on either end can be a nightmare. If they are to continue as an opening pair, it’s likely that Kohli will be stay in the shadows early on while Sharma goes hammer and tongs, as he did on Saturday.

Kohli, 32, will hone his skills as opener for Royal Challengers Bangalore in IPL. If he struggles to adjust to the role, will he still continue?

The success of Kohli-Sharma is also on an assumption that at least one of them will bat till the end. “If we have a partnership and we both are set, then you know one of us is going to cause some serious damage. The other guys feel much more confident when one of us is still in and set; they know they can play more freely,” Kohli said.

In T20s, where the game can change in an over, it’s too early to bet on a pair that will only get to play a handful of matches together before the World Cup.

“It’s still a long time for the World Cup. Early days to talk about what the batting line-up will look like. Today was, I guess, a tactical move because we wanted to play an extra bowler. We wanted to leave one batsman out, and unfortunately it was KL (Rahul), which was very tough. Having said that, it doesn’t send any signal that KL will not be considered. This was just for one particular game,” Sharma said.

“The combination, getting the right players in, somebody who is in good form, giving him an opportunity—those are the things that really matter. And I think we’ll be focusing on that come the World Cup. We just finished the T20 series, and I don’t think Virat will open in the ODI series.”

Whatever happens, India won’t want a repeat of the 2019 ICC World Cup when the team didn’t have a stable No. 4 till the very end, and they faltered.

Bhuvi’s back

Even if Sharma and Kohli as the opening pair will get clearer only as the T20 World Cup nears, one thing is certain. The bowling line-up for this series will not feature in the marquee event. The impending return of Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja means at last a couple of players from the India-England series will miss out.

Staking a big claim to be part of the T20 World Cup squad is Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Once India’s limited-overs spearhead, he had faded into the background due to injuries –back to hamstring to hip. His last Test was in 2018 and T20I in December, 2019 coming into this series. He eased back in style. Bhuvneshwar finished with the best economy rate in the series (6.38).

In Saturday’s decider, he gave an early break, bowling Jason Roy in the first over. But his most telling impact came in the 13th over. Even a 225-run target didn’t look safe as Jos Buttler and Dawid Malan were in the middle of an onslaught. Kumar’s first spell was 2-0-6-1. He conceded three runs in the first four deliveries of the 13th over, and then delivered a quicker one. Buttler had a go at it, only to be caught on the long-off boundary.

In two separate phases, Kumar delivered and walked away with the Man-of-the Match award in a game where the batsmen had scored almost 400 runs in 40 overs. His final figures read 4-0-15-2, with an incredible 17 dot balls.

Kumar used pace variation intelligently. “We do understand we need to put the responsibility on him a lot more in the crucial overs. He has accepted that pretty well. He bowled the crucial overs at the start and towards the back end, which we thought was not easy at all considering how much dew was on the field. That is what Bhuvi has done for us. You can count on him in situations like this,” vice-captain Sharma said.

The X-factors

Going by the number of times Kohli dubbed Suryakumar Yadav as an “X-factor” player, it is safe to assume that having belatedly made his India debut, he would leave a lasting impact.

In his two matches, Yadav played a terrific range of shots. For long, he has been a rock in the Mumbai Indians top-order and the Indian team is finally getting to see his ability. Yadav scored a half-century on debut, like another MI player Ishan Kishan, who too made his India debut in this series. Both can bat anywhere in the order and are power-hitters.

“Kishan is a talented guy. One aspect where he has improved is his game reading. He is now more aware of the situation. Being the captain of the Jharkhand limited overs team has helped him,” said Sharma, also MI skipper.

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