Adulation cuts both ways, particularly when you are opening the batting for the Indian cricket team. It is true that Indian batters enjoy a cult following.
But the scars of the 2017 Champions Trophy final, the 157 for no loss at the 2021 T20 World Cup, and the semifinal defeats of 2019 and 2022, events ingrained in recent popular culture memory, are testimony that it doesn’t take long for that fandom to turn on its head and for the burden of failure to land squarely at your doorstep.
These were instances of India’s vaunted top order being reduced to shambles in the face of menacing pace, swing and seam.
India found itself in a similar wreck in its Asia Cup 2023 opener against Pakistan but Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill ensured that their 121-run opening stand in the Super Four stage, against the same opposition, ended the sequence of ignominy.
Though 121, unlike Pakistan’s 157 of the 2021 T20 World Cup, is unlikely to attain immortality considering the tenor and tone of the tournament, it holds the promise of brighter days.
India’s exits in the last two T20 World Cups have stirred a debate around its PowerPlay approach. With a World Cup looming, the need for aggression at the top has percolated to one-dayers as well.
Rohit signalled that intent off the last ball of the first over, flicking Shaheen Afridi’s in-swinger off his pads for a six over deep square-leg. Afridi’s insistence throughout his first spell on pitching the ball up, validated by India’s top-order’s struggles against left-arm swing, played into the openers’ hands.
Gill took a toll on Afridi in the latter’s second over, flicking two successive full deliveries on the pads to the fine-leg and midwicket boundary. When Afridi pitched outside off, Gill took a confident stride and pushed it down the ground for his third boundary in the over.
He wasn’t done just yet. Afridi’s predictability of length meant that Gill skipped out in the left-armer’s third over and nonchalantly lifted the ball over mid-on for another four. When Afridi came around the wicket, Gill strode forward to drive through covers and then through point for back-to-back boundaries.
Afridi, out of the attack, was shellacked for 31 in his first three overs, but Naseem Shah showed that the new-ball test was far from complete. Gill was in a spot off Naseem’s first delivery of the day when he miscued a cut and had the ball falling just short of Afridi at deep third. Naseem almost had him again slashing outside off, but the slip cordon was caught napping.
Rohit, on the other hand, had gone into a shell as Naseem relentlessly homed in on the channel outside off, kept it on the shorter side and moved it away off the seam. He extracted extra bounce and often caught Rohit leaden-footed during a period of 15 consecutive dot balls that the India skipper endured against the right-arm quick.
But when Naseem pitched it fuller, Rohit’s eyes lit up and he flicked it over midwicket before unleashing his trademark pull to swat the ball away for four more. With the PowerPlay done, Rohit and Gill had rushed to 65 and sailed through the challenge that was tipped as the litmus test by some and a line in the sand by others as far as India’s World Cup hopes are concerned.
To be fair, India (5.39) is the second fastest-scoring team in ODIs since 2021, second only to England (5.67), which is on its own mission to warp space and time through vehemence. But that the numbers are skewed to some extent by the quality of the opposition of late is a valid suspicion.
India scored at 6.7 runs an over in the PowerPlay against an under-par Sri Lanka and a depleted New Zealand pace attack at home earlier this year. But the corresponding figure dipped to 5.23 in the three-match series against Australia in March and the numbers weren’t encouraging against England (4.23), South Africa (4.4) and even Bangladesh (4.4) last year.
The T20I PowerPlay awakening, following the 2021 T20 World Cup first-round exit, had been marshalled by Rohit himself, before the intent fizzled out in a 10-wicket defeat to England in the semifinal of the 2022 edition.
The fear of pressure and quality bowling getting the better of the intent was reiterated against Pakistan in Pallekele last week when the top three were cleaned up playing timid shots, seemingly unnerved more by reputation than the merit of the delivery.
But Rohit and Gill allayed those fears in Colombo with fifties of guts, substance and without losing the sense of occasion.
Regardless of the result of the game, which was forced into the reserve day after rain suspended play on Sunday, India’s batting fortunes may have turned a corner and overcome a mental block, and it bodes well with the World Cup less than a month away.
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