An odd question came up in Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur’s post-match conference in Birmingham on Sunday. “The captain had promised out of the box thinking. Where was it?” asked one reporter, after India had won the rain-marred Group B clash by 124 runs.
To be fair, it is tough to judge particularly given how Pakistan were mauled in every aspect. But they did do something intriguing – or ‘out of the box’ – in bowling Imad Wasim in the second over of the day. It was a surprise really as no Indian batsman would have expected to face left-arm spin at 10.35 am, that too playing in England on a cloudy, rain-soaked morning.
It would have been a move-to-remember, entering into the folklore of India-Pakistan rivalry, if Wasim had knocked back the Indian top-order. And there is every reason to suggest it worked in its limited capacity, as he controlled the scoring in the first ten overs. But in sport, not just in cricket alone, everyone tends to remember the moves that worked, the ones that win you the moment, the game, the tournament, and the trophy.
And so, this average-quality India-Pakistan encounter will be remembered more for what the winning team pulled off, obviously. Let is be also said here that India, until this game, had flown below the radar with many doubting their credentials to be able to defend their 2013 title. In that light, this game – rather this victory – was a resounding affirmation that the Men in Blue are always in contention.
Team India have been mired in controversy ever since they arrived in England. However, it wasn’t one of their making. It isn’t easy to concentrate on your job when rumours are swirling about relationships between the players and the team management. But this team has a thick skin. They go into a shell, and protect themselves from external attention, concentrating on doing just their own thing. This is how Virat Kohli, Anil Kumble and company survived the week before the first ball was bowled in Birmingham.
The toughest decision for the Indian captain in the build-up to this game was in deciding his bowling combination. And it was a brave call to leave out Ravi Ashwin after the season he has just had. On the face of it though, this was a no-brainer. If you are only going to play one spinner in limited-overs cricket, it has to be Ravindra Jadeja, not on account of his hitting prowess or bowling ability. It is simply on his athleticism and fielding skill.
“We decided in the morning that the surface was hard enough for the bowlers to keep hitting good, hard length and use the bouncer every over as well to create a bit of pressure. And we decided to play an extra seamer against Pakistan, purely because of the fact that becomes a wicket-taking option,” said Kohli after the game. The move paid dividends, of course. No one could have complained that India made a mistake in leaving out Ashwin, and this could very well decide the shape of things to come.
The other big headache was about Yuvraj Singh’s inclusion, or at least it seemed so from the outside. He hadn’t played a ball in anger on arrival in England, thanks to his fever. But this is a big-game batsman we are talking about. Throughout his career, he has helped India come back from the brink, never mind the situation, opposition or conditions. Just how could you leave him out?
Dinesh Karthik’s 90-odd in the second warm-up game was just an index of his preparation as a backup then. The selectors had picked Yuvraj to anchor the middle order, when they brought him back into the ODI fold in January against England. When fit, he just walked into the side, and on Sunday, Pakistan faced the brunt of his blade. Yes, they had themselves to blame – Hasan Ali dropping a sitter off him at 9* – and the complexion of the game changed thereafter.
“The way he batted was the way only he can strike the ball – hitting low full tosses for fours and sixes, and even digging out yorkers for fours, it was outstanding. That really deflated the opposition,” said the Indian skipper, who later promoted Hardik Pandya ahead of MS Dhoni. The all-rounder came out, smacked three sixes off three balls in the last over, put the score past 300, and Pakistan knew they were staring at defeat without facing a single delivery.
It didn’t seem anything different from routine for India, but holding Dhoni back did raise an eyebrow. That the move worked was an affirmation of a new thinking in the Indian camp, particularly from Kohli’s point of view. Whether it was in leaving out Ashwin, picking Yuvraj or promoting Pandya, the skipper believed in his decisions with conviction.
So did his counter-part Sarfaraz Ahmed, when he decided to bowl Wasim in the second over. Sadly, no one will remember that.