Tested before the triumph

Virat Kohli... Man of the Match for his breezy half-century.-K.R. DEEPAK

It was a verdict on expected lines but the manner in which Afghanistan refused to pay its respects to an acclaimed rival and India’s own fault-lines — struggling openers and bowlers wilting in the slog — made for interesting viewing, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Cricket in the time of strife, is often a grim reality in Afghanistan. Perhaps the odd distant staccato of ammunition wreaking havoc that serves as a background score to the thump of a bat on a cricket ball, would have told the Pashtuns that the relative pressure on a ground against stronger opponents is nothing. “Those (refugee) camps and the tough times back home has got the team closer,” said coach Kabir Khan about his wards.

This unity and can-do spirit was screamingly evident as Afghanistan tested India in an ICC World Twenty20 Group A match at the R. Premadasa Stadium on September 19. Afghanistan lost the match by 23 runs but there was no humiliation in defeat while triumphant India had more questions to cope with once L. Balaji scythed the rival’s wriggling tail. For the record, chasing India’s 159 for five, Afghanistan scored 136 in 19.3 overs.

It was a verdict on expected lines but the manner in which Afghanistan refused to pay its respects to an acclaimed rival and India’s own fault-lines — struggling openers and bowlers wilting in the slog — made for interesting viewing. When India and Afghanistan last played, again in an ICC World Twenty20 encounter in the West Indies in 2010, the story was different from its current version. India then registered a seven-wicket victory without forcing its fans to chew nails or send a prayer across to the heavens.

“We have played them earlier and we do know about them,” was M. S. Dhoni’s riposte when asked about playing against a team on which the database dossier did not have enough information. Seven members of the Afghanistan team that did battle against India in the Caribbean were part of the current squad too but the key difference was that the present lot had more self-belief.

Nawroz Mangal won the toss and surprisingly opted to field. The temerity of electing to chase against India was not lost on anyone but much after the lights dimmed at the venue, there was new-found respect for the skills residing within Afghanistan.

India walked into an early ambush as openers Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag perished to left-arm seamer Shapoor Zadran with just 22 on board. Though Yuvraj Singh’s majestic six against Shapoor showed who the boss is, India was still in the process of reclaiming lost ground in the Power Play (34/2).

It was left to Virat Kohli (50, 39b, 4x4, 2x6) to embellish the Indian innings with his customary elan. He played straight down the ground, punctured cover and most importantly strung two crucial partnerships –— 46 for the third wicket with Yuvraj and 46 for the fourth wicket with Suresh Raina. That, along with Dhoni’s biff at the end, helped India enjoy a late surge while Afghanistan undid itself by grassing four catches. “Perhaps the pressure got to them and these are usually safe fielders,” said Kabir.

After the break, Afghanistan launched a merry canter. Opener Mohammad Shahzad had spoken about playing the helicopter shot ahead of the game and he unveiled it against a perplexed Zaheer Khan. A string of cameos lent hope and frustration equally to the Afghan ranks while Yuvraj picked three wickets.

The lower-order and tail then launched an assault that stretched the game into the last over. Mohammad Nabi’s 31 (17b, 2x4, 2x6) threatened to unhinge India’s plans of an early night out. He hammered Yuvraj into the stands but R. Ashwin and L. Balaji combined to prise out the last dregs of resistance and ‘Man of the Match’ Kohli said: “In the end we won the match.”

THE SCORE

India: G. Gambhir b Shapoor 10; V. Sehwag c Shahzad b Shapoor 8; V. Kohli c Nabi b Dawlat 50; Yuvraj Singh c Shapoor b Karim 18; S. Raina b Nabi 38; M. Dhoni (not out) 18; Rohit Sharma (not out) 1. Extras (lb-2, w-14): 16. Total (for five wkts., in 20 overs): 159.

Fall of wickets: 1-15, 2-22, 3- 68, 4-114, 5-148.

Afghanistan bowling: Shapoor 4-0-33-2, Dawlat 4-0-25-1, Naib 2-0-15-0, Sadiq 4-0-33-1, Nabi 4-0-35-1, Shenwari 2-0-16-0.

Afghanistan: Md. Shahzad c Yuvraj b Balaji 18; N. Mangal lbw b Yuvraj 22; K. Sadiq c Gambhir b Yuvraj 26; A. Stanikzai c Dhoni b Yuvraj 6; Md. Nabi c Rohit b Ashwin 31; Samiullah Shenwari c & b Ashwin 1; Shafiqullah lbw b Pathan 8; G. Naib c Raina b Balaji 5; N. Zadran (run out) 5; Dawlat Zadran b Balaji 8; Shapoor Zadran (not out) 0. Extras (lb-2, w-3, nb-1): 6. Total (in 19.3 overs): 136.

Fall of wickets: 1-26, 2-52, 3-75, 4-75, 5-76, 6-100, 7-119, 8-125, 9-136.

India bowling: Zaheer 3-0-32-0, Irfan 4-0-29-1, Balaji 3.3-0-19-3, Rohit 1-0-10-0, Yuvraj 4-0-24-3, Ashwin 4-0-20-2.