Sri Lanka’s victory in Tuesday’s Twenty20 match was a startling result given India’s spectacular run in this format only a few days back Down Under where they had thrashed Australia 3-0.
In home conditions it was widely believed Dhoni and Co would be invincible, particularly because the Sri Lankans are in the process of rebuilding and missing key players like Angelo Matthews and Tillekratne Dilshan.
But in less than four hours on a chilly Tuesday evening in Pune, the top-ranked team in this format had the ground cut from under them, so to speak. The defeat by five wickets – a huge margin in the T20 format – was not anticipated by anybody.
Upsets are not just part and parcel of sport, but also give it flavour. The T20 format can be particularly topsy-turvy, as so many teams have discovered in the past decade. Some would argue – not unjustifiably – that the shortest format of the game is actually a lottery. But this is not to take away even a whit from Sri Lanka’s effort in the match, which was superb.
The bowlers were fiery and focused, particularly newbie pacer Kasun Rajitha who did all the early damage. And the batsmen held their nerve under enormous pressure. Low scores are often the hardest to overhaul. Yet, all said and done, it could be said that the setback to India was self-inflicted.
The batting was quite horrendous, stemming perhaps from a flawed approach, and the meagre score of 101 became impossible to defend even on a spicy pitch and with the bowlers coming good.
There was not a little irony that earlier the same day, India’s Under-19 team had secured their place in the World Cup final (to be played on Sunday) in a sterling display of resolve and ambition.
Of course the formats were different (the U-19 tournament is of 50 overs a side), but comparisons were inevitable nonetheless, especially where approach was concerned: where the young brigade was hardy, the more established senior team was profligate. So what went wrong with India in the first match at Pune?
Essentially, it was the batting that bombed. There was too much risk, too many loose shots, too many wickets lost too quickly. Batsman after batsman walked out, threw his bat at everything and got out.
By the time the innings was halfway through, five batsmen were back in the dug out. From such a situation, it is difficult even for a side that bats as deep as India to extricate itself, and it took the pluck and resourcefulness of Ravichandran Ashwin to ensure that the total inched past the three-figure mark.
The bowlers did splendidly in my opinion to make a match of it. Pacers and spinners alike had the Sri Lankan batsmen under pressure, but ultimately the total was just too poor to defend and India were left to rue that they hadn’t got 20-25 runs more on a greenish pitch.
Indeed, the 22-yard strip became the biggest ‘influencer’ in the outcome and the subject of much debate after the match had been completed. Everybody anticipated and predicted a featherbed, but it turned out to be seaming track with healthy bounce: more akin to an English greentop than a well-rolled, easy-to-bat subcontinent pitch. Yet, that still barely explains the failure of the strong Indian batting to even play out the 20 overs.
Their body language and demeanour seemed to suggest they were out to maul the seemingly weaker team. High on the batting success in Australia, the approach seemed to be to blow the Sri Lankan side away with all-out aggression. It could be that the pitch was initially misread, and India had set a target of 175 or thereabouts for themselves. But the bigger folly was in not making a timely change in game-plan after realising that the track was not a belter.
Caution is not bad even in T20 cricket. When the conditions are unfavourable for batting, or if the opponents are bowling really well, it makes sense to draw in a breath, temper the aggressive intent and play resourcefully to ensure a defendable score.
The Sri Lankan batsmen showed how this could be done. They were off to a poor start too with a couple of batsmen throwing their wickets away but skipper Dinesh Chandimal’s cool head and experience helped enormously in the situation. He was able to guide his team to the verge of victory because he didn’t go for dramatic impact but for effectiveness.
At the end of play, MS Dhoni was bold enough to acknowledge that his team had batted badly, and that even 20 runs more could have given his side victory instead of defeat. “It’s a lesson that we have learnt,’’ he said after the match.
The biggest learning, of course, is that there are no ‘weak’ sides in this format. Victory will have to be achieved with talent, obviously, but also tactics – and an absence of egotism.
This understanding will have to be carried deep into the season, until the World Twenty20 tournament ends; beginning, of course, with the two matches remaining in this series. It’s been a timely wake-up call.
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