By R Kaushik in Mirpur
India has certainly re-established its Twenty20 credentials but Yuvraj Singh might have relinquished his status as a bowlers’ nightmare for good
Until Sunday’s no-contest in the final, India had been the toast of the ICC World Twenty20 2014, fusing the best of uniquely subcontinental flair with an occidental attention to method and detail. India didn’t necessarily play the most entertaining cricket – that honour was entirely West Indies’ – but it didn’t win ugly either. Virat Kohli showcased the best of Indian batsmanship, R Ashwin and Amit Mishra, to a lesser extent in the last few games, were a throwback to an era where bowlers out-thought and outwitted batsmen through guile, not by firing balls in with the sole intention of checking the flow of runs.
India wasn’t flawless. All the way, its fielding was a couple of notches below the lofty standards it has set in the last 12 months, and in the final, the batting hardly suggested that this was a team that had swept to comfortable victories in its last five matches. In the larger context, those blips came with varying consequences. The fielding didn’t cost India too much, the batting in the final all but cost it the title, ensuring that the element of competitiveness had fled the title clash halfway through the three-hour game. It was bad timing that the brain fade occurred in the final, from a side that has invariably raised its game in trophy-deciding contests.
Kohli’s incandescent batting should have come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the game even fleetingly for the last couple of years. Few batsmen have been as majestic across formats as India’s captain-in-waiting. His appetite for run making is staggering, as is the manner in which he goes about compiling innings. There are days when he makes batting look ridiculously easy, like in the semi-final against South Africa. And then, there are days like the final when, at the beginning of his innings, he looks human after all, but by the end of which he has showcased his extraordinary range of strokes and the intelligent brain that drives a lithe, supple body.
No batsman wowed audiences throughout the World T20 like Kohli did. That he was the leading run-scorer, and the unanimous choice for the Player of the Tournament award, were almost incidental. Kohli had the purists eating out of his hands with his orthodoxy and his correctness. Comprehensively exploding the popular myth that T20 batting is a power-driven tool, he reinforced the merits of strong basics, driving the best in the business to distraction with his conventional approach to batsmanship. Not for him the cheeky paddles and the audacious reverse sweeps, the inventive switch-hits or the agricultural mows to leg. It’s not that Kohli is averse to embracing the ‘modern’ way, it’s just he doesn’t feel the need to try out the risk-prone when he is good enough to score heavily and quickly with his risk-free, copybook approach.
At the other end of the batting spectrum was a man who will never claim to have killed the bowlers softly but who, in his pomp, was as feared a limited-overs batsman as there has been in the history of the game. To watch Yuvraj Singh potter around for a majority of the World T20 was painful. This was the man who, as recently as three years back, strode the limited-overs scene like a colossus, the inspiration behind many an epochal triumph, the star during India’s victory in the first World T20 in 2007, the Player of the Tournament in the 50-over World Cup at home in 2011, the man who smashed six sixes in a T20 International, the man who pulverised attacks donning the India Blues.
Except for a brief while against Australia when the Yuvraj of old resurfaced with telling effect, this left-hand batsman bore little resemblance to the purposeful, aggressive, hard-hitting Yuvraj Indian fans have come to love and adore. Scratchy and looking somewhat lost all through the World T20, he plumbed the depths in the final. If his 21-ball 11 is his last international innings, then it’s a sad way to remember him by. He has been at the receiving end of criticism and sarcasm since Sunday night, though his friends and colleagues have closed ranks. It’s impossible for Yuvraj not to be badly affected by the traumatic memory of the final. The fans have shown unseemly ire and condemnable derision, but my heart goes out to him. He might have cost his team the final – and even that is debatable, for who is to say Sri Lanka might not have chased down 150 or 160 – but does it give us the license to take pot-shots from the convenient comfort of our living rooms and the relative anonymity that the cyber world accords us?
That’s not to say that it isn’t time to look beyond Yuvraj. The T20 format has been Yuvraj’s only avenue of international cricket in the last four months, since he was jettisoned from the One-Day International team. India doesn’t have a T20I lined up in the immediate future and it is difficult to see him make a return to the ODI set-up. What a way to go out, if Sunday was his swansong, for a man who has provided unalloyed entertainment.
Between Kohli and Yuvraj on the batting spectrum, the men who did their causes no harm at all were Rohit Sharma, gradually coming to grips with his status as a T20I opener, and Suresh Raina, all swagger and strut, all attitude and aggression. Dhoni hardly had a hit but if there is one person India need not worry about after Kohli, it is the captain, the iron man of Indian cricket.
It is impossible for Dhoni not to have been affected by the goings-on around him – not just the betting scandal engulfing his franchise, but also his own integrity and character questioned in public. That Dhoni manages to not just keep his wits about him, but also galvanises his troops in the most extenuating of circumstances, is one of the great miracles in life. He did his reputation as India’s most successful and most inspirational captains no harm whatsoever. He will not lose much sleep at not completing the World Cup-Champions Trophy-World T20 treble; he knows his place in history is secure, and in any case, he is not obsessed by numbers and stats and records.
Dhoni, though, will have taken great delight in the way Ashwin bowled. Ravindra Jadeja had knocked him off the country’s No. 1 spinner pedestal for a while, but the engineer from Chennai showed who the boss is with the craftiest, most pleasing bowling displays of the competition. For some reason, Ashwin has been the one Indian that fans, taking their cue from experts and pundits, love to hate; if he hasn’t won over the doubters after his stellar displays in the World T20, he never will. And he won’t care, either. His job is not to win friends, it’s to win matches, and he does that quite well.
The ball he produced to dismiss Hashim Amla in the semi-final was magical, otherworldly, in the ‘seeing is believing’ category, the off-spinner’s carrom ball equivalent of the ripping leg-break Shane Warne produced to bamboozle Mike Gatting all those summers ago. That he got such prodigious turn from leg to off using his finger rather than his wrist made this an even more special delivery. Pitching well outside leg and hitting the middle of the off-stump is what every leggie fantasises about. For an offie to do that? Crazy, isn’t it?
From no-hopers at the start of the tournament, India had established itself as the favourite by the time the semis got around. Briefly, it climbed to the No. 1 position on the ICC T20I charts, and while Sri Lanka reclaimed that status after Sunday’s six-wicket win, India has re-established its 20-over credentials. Some might say this the ideal build-up to the Indian Premier League, the more informed will point to the IPL as being one of the driving forces behind what in the main was a stirring run. Take your pick.