“One more wicket, just one more wicket, guys.” Rishabh Pant’s constant exhortations from behind the stumps lacked the ring of conviction and may as well have fallen on deaf ears.
As New Zealand, without any scoreboard pressure chasing 111, cantered along merrily, with Darryl Mitchell (49 off 35; 4×4, 3×6) at times toying with the much-vaunted attack, India’s shoulders drooped, the faces went grim and their pre-tournament billing appeared manufactured.
Even the usually exuberant-till-the-last Virat Kohli seemed to have a black cloud hovering over him. Professional sportsmen learn to accept defeat with equanimity but the smile left the Indian captain completely as he kept shuffling nervously with hands behind his back.
New Zealand, all the while, marched inexorably towards victory. When they eventually did so, by 8 wickets with 33 balls remaining, it was a completely dominant and thoroughly clinical performance.
Was Kohli thinking about whether his captaincy was destined to end without an ICC trophy? Was Rohit Sharma, as he trudged back to his fielding position after every ball, still smarting about being demoted from his usual opening slot? Had the Indian Premier League left India’s top players drained?
Was there an acceptance, from those responsible beyond the field of play, that India’s squad selection may not have been ideal? Had the introduction of MS Dhoni as last-minute interlocutor between coach Ravi Shastri and Kohli led to too many talking heads?
“It was quite bizarre,” Kohli said afterwards about the defeat. “Our body language was not right as we entered the field.”
India’s second straight shellacking in as many games has effectively ruined their World Cup dreams and left them staring at an early exit. Barring an accident for New Zealand against one of the minnows, India are out of the semifinals, leaving them with a lot of time to mull over the questions that matter.
For starters, why were they so diffident with the bat? Having lost the toss again, was it the fear that 14 of the last 18 games in Dubai before this had been won by the chasing side? Did they fumble in trying to reach the 160-170 mark, eventually managing only 110/7? Did the pressure get to them?
This was a nervy, curiously edgy and tentative batting performance in a must-win game. India were sedate against pace, completely unable to get the spinners away and their big hits kept finding the fielders. Sure, it wasn’t the ideal pitch, and a bit two-paced, but not enough to warrant such a low score. India’s indecisive approach was brought on by a disciplined Kiwi attack which successfully applied the slow choke, forcing the errors as the batters tried to get a move on.
Also, India’s experiments at the top of the order went completely awry. Rohit Sharma was demoted to No. 3, just the third time that the team management has chosen to do so since 2013 in T20Is. Ishan Kishan, drafted in place of Suryakumar Yadav, was pushed to open alongside KL Rahul. The results weren’t quite as dramatic, or as successful, as India expected.
New Zealand were in control throughout and every change captain Kane Williamson made came off. So completely dominant were the bowlers, right from the Powerplay on, that for the first time in this World Cup, there was no boundary hit between overs 7-15.
When Hardik Pandya finally hit one off past backward point off Boult in the last ball of India’s 17th over, it broke a 71-ball barren run without a boundary. The match was effectively lost there itself.
Both Kiwi new-ball bowlers, Trent Bout (3/20) and Tim Southee, took a leaf from England’s approach on the same pitch the other night and bowled those awkward 6-8 metre Test-match lengths.
It wasn’t by any means a big-turning surface but the spinners, Man of the Match Ish Sodhi (2/17) and Mitchell Santner, then got their lines right and bowled cleverly restrictive lengths. Among India’ top guns, Rohit, dropped first ball, shone all too briefly, and Kohli managed 9 off 17.
The experienced batting line-up came a cropper and the inability to get the spinners away raises another question: did they miss Suryakumar, a good player of spin, who was out with back spasm, and even Shikhar Dhawan? With the ball, did they err in not picking Yuzvendra Chahal? Where were the wicket-takers to back up Bumrah?
The inquisition has just begun for India. What will rankle most in this virtually derailed World Cup campaign is the completely deflating manner of both defeats.