Will India give bench a chance?
Masks. They were about the only thing that stood out at the Eden Gardens club house. Ignore them and it would seem like any week leading up to an international at this iconic cricket amphitheatre.
On Friday evening, the mezzanine and the first two floors were buzzing. The waiting area of key officials’ rooms had people swarming like fielders around a batter facing spin on a turning track. Complimentary tickets were in demand failing which any priced ticket ( ₹650 and ₹1500) would do too for Sunday’s game, the first T20I here in three years and ninth overall, where 70% of the approximate 66,000 capacity would be allowed.
Journalists huddled on either side of the automatic glass sliding door on the first floor waiting for officials — Sourav Ganguly, really — to emerge and speak. Ganguly was in the building, after having done what few presidents of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) were qualified to do— take a hard look at the pitch.
Ganguly said the dew would be a factor. As it has been through this series where India, with the new captain-coach combination of Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid, are one win away from a clean sweep. As it was in the World T20 in the UAE where 29 of the 45 games were won by teams batting second. It has sparked a debate on the importance of the toss, which could again play a big role in the final T20I of the three-match series. Of the previous eight T20Is at Eden, five were won by the team batting first.
Sharma and Dravid will return to a venue that holds pleasant memories. Well, more for Sharma than Dravid maybe because through an ODI in November 2005, his team and coach Greg Chappell were roundly booed. It was not just for effete batting but because, kept in forced isolation, Ganguly had made 159 in a Ranji Trophy game in Pune on the night India crumbled to 188 all out to lose by 10 wickets. This was four years after Dravid had defied dehydration to score 180 in a 376-run epic stand with VVS Laxman.
Sharma, who has scored 48 and 55 in this series, comes to Eden days after the seventh anniversary of his world record 264 here in an ODI against Sri Lanka. Like now, that series had been won but over 50,000 had fetched up and were rewarded with a 173-ball knock that had 33 fours and nine sixes. No one has scored 186 runs through fours and sixes in an ODI as Sharma did that afternoon. Months later, he led Mumbai Indians to his and their second IPL title at Eden. He also has a Test century (177) on debut at this venue and his only IPL ton.
There is little to say when you have won both games comfortably in the series. So, will Sharma and Dravid use the opportunity to give squad players a chance? With another T20 World Cup next year and Indians not allowed to play in franchise leagues abroad, Dravid will not get too many games to gauge his team’s strength in depth.
Nothing beats the real thing of being out in the middle, New Zealand’s Mark Chapman said after making 63 in Jaipur. So, what chance one or more from among Ruturaj Gaikwad—the orange cap winner in IPL 2021 with 635 runs— Ishan Kishan, Yuzvendra Chahal and Avesh Khan getting a game? “The bench strength, these guys have been performing consistently, so there's pressure on the guys on the field,” Sharma said after Friday’s seven-wicket win.
Venkatesh Iyer will play at Eden in an India blue before he does that in the purple of the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). In his new role as a middle-order bat, Iyer, like KKR teammate Varun Chakaravarthy in the World T20, hasn’t done much: he hasn’t bowled, taken no catches, contributed to a slight wobble in the chase in Jaipur and didn’t have much to do when he came out to bat in Ranchi. The other Iyer in the middle-order, Shreyas, has faced only eight balls.
The middle-order hasn’t been tested because the openers have come good and the bowlers have not let New Zealand post big totals. With their fifth century stand, Sharma and KL Rahul equalled Baba Azam and Mohammad Rizwan’s world record in T20Is. “We enjoy batting with each other. We try to take pressure off each other,” Rahul told the official broadcasters in Ranchi.
Rahul said if he is struggling against any bowler, Sharma will take that bowler on without Rahul having to even say that. Their approach, he said, is to usually see out a couple of overs to gauge the pitch and assess “shots we can play.”
But unlike Azam and Rizwan against India in the World T20, neither stayed till the end. Rahul skied Tim Southee with the required run rate under 5.5, India needing 37 from 41 deliveries. Sharma was foxed by a Southee slower delivery when India needed 18 from 28.
"It's been a hectic schedule on the back of the T20 World Cup, I just don't think we adapted to the surface as well as we could have," skipper Southee said on Friday. He also promised a “review” and an assessment when they get to Kolkata. Should New Zealand walk Southee’s talk, it could provide a fitting end to a series that has been on a simmer. That would also give Eden, which has held local T20 tournaments and the 2020-21 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in the surreal silence of an empty stadium and been a Covid-19 quarantine centre, a reason to roar. Again.