This was the perfect David v Goliath scenario, David with nothing to lose and Goliath with nothing to gain. Generally, such contests degenerate into mismatches; Wednesday was anything but the norm, India forced to dig deep and hold their nerve to quell a spirited challenge from Afghanistan’s bravehearts.
Virat Kohli, the articulate new face of Indian cricket, attempted to put things in perspective when he spoke precisely of how, with nothing to lose, Afghanistan could afford to come out all guns blazing. It was a stirring defence of a patchy performance from a team that has struggled consistently to translate its exposure to Twenty20 cricket to meaningful performances, but sitting there listening to Kohli speak, you couldn’t help but feel that Kohli’s heart was not really in it.
For most of his 10-minute interaction, Kohli spoke of the bowling unit, and how it needed to get its act together. India have traditionally been excellent front-runners. They know how to keep an opposition down when they get on top early, but when the batsmen come hard at them and ride their luck, like Bangladesh did at the 50-over World Cup in 2007, they appear ragged and more than a little clueless, trying to blast opponents out even though they don’t have the pace to do so.
The one constant between that loss to Bangladesh at Port of Spain, and Wednesday’s scratchy, unconvincing 23-run win over Afghanistan at the World T20, is Zaheer Khan, India’s pace spearhead whose limited-overs form is no patch on his Test exploits. Zaheer is more than a decade old in international cricket, is an acknowledged practitioner of left-arm medium-pace, and without being the quickest, is one of the more respected bowlers in international cricket. To see him being taken apart both by the unconventional Mohammad Shahzad and the delightfully orthodox Mohammad Nabi didn’t make for a pretty sight.
In three overs, Zaheer conceded 32, including 16 in his third, the 16th of the Afghan chase. Mahendra Singh Dhoni didn’t go to him for the last over – Zaheer was the only specialist bowler not to complete his quota – though how much should be read into it is another matter altogether.
It was Zaheer’s second poor outing in three days at the R Premadasa Stadium. On Monday evening, he had leaked 31 in three overs, Kamran Akmal and Shoaib Malik smashing him for 19 in the 15th over to help Pakistan snatch an unexpected victory in a warm-up game. Once again, it was towards the death overs that Zaheer’s lack of variation stood exposed, though as Kohli pointed out, that didn’t necessarily make him a bad bowler.
“See, our initial bowling hasn’t been that bad,” said Kohli, as he measured his words. “We have started well. Even against New Zealand (in the Twenty20 International 10 days back), we started really well, I think it’s the death bowling we need to work on. If someone is getting hit in the last over, you just can’t say that he is not bowling well at all. I think he (Zaheer) has been bowling well with the new ball, it’s just that our bowlers need to work a bit more on death-over bowling. That’s been a bit of a concern till now; I am hoping we can pull our socks up, be ready for stronger oppositions and execute our plans much better than we did in this game.”
It transpires that Afghanistan’s attack on Zaheer wasn’t accidental. Kabir Khan, the coach, revealed that of all the Indian bowlers, they had picked R Ashwin as the biggest threat. “The way we planned it was, we knew India were going to be one bowler short because they were playing with only four bowlers,” said Kabir, a former Pakistan fast bowler. “We were looking at playing Ashwin a bit defensively and not give him many wickets. He was the only bowler who was going to create problems for us because the wicket was not helping the pacers.”
Zaheer bowled his first two overs for 12 against Pakistan, and conceded 15 in his first two overs against Afghanistan, though in neither game did he pick up a wicket. So what does Dhoni, fixated at the moment on playing just four specialist bowlers, do now? Does he bowl Zaheer out with the new ball? Or does he keep the faith in his battering ram, hoping that his experience will out and that Zaheer will bounce back against what Kohli refers to as ‘stronger’ oppositions? Or, does he bite the bullet and leave him out of the playing XI, however silly that might sound? Tricky call, that.