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Bowlers to thank for India’s surprise start

Drafting in a third spinner has yielded dividends for Dhoni with Amit Mishra leading a resurgent bowling attack

Bowlers to thank for India’s surprise start - Cricket News
The genuine wicket-taking threat Amit Mishra brings in the middle overs is one of the primary reasons for neither Pakistan nor West Indies dominating the bowling at any stage of their batting stints.
Who would have thought that, at this early stage of the Super 10 Group 2 competition, India would be perched comfortably at the top of the standings, with an all-win record after two games?
 
For all its experience of Twenty20 cricket across six seasons of the Indian Premier League, India hasn’t always been a great advocate of or believer in international T20 cricket. Most of its 46 T20 Internationals coming into the ICC World T20 2014 were spread over the four previous editions of the tournament; it has played just five T20Is between the previous World T20 in Sri Lanka in 2012 and this one here in Bangladesh, over a period of 18 months.
 
If India wasn’t at the top of anyone’s list of favourites, it was perfectly understandable. And yet, here we are, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men within one win of qualifying for the knockout phase of the World T20 for the first time since 2007.
 
Then again, what’s T20 cricket without surprises? The 40-over, three-hour slugfest bridges the gulf between teams more than any other format, allowing the lesser lights the luxury of genuinely eyeing an upset or two. Nepal put it past Afghanistan the other day, a few hours before Hong Kong, which had shown no form worth mentioning, sent a nation into collective despair by laying low Bangladesh. T20 cricket should prepare you for surprises. Or, simply put, nothing should surprise when it comes to T20 cricket.
 
But it does when you look at how India has worked its way to pole position in Group 2. Two seven-wicket wins, against 2009 titlists Pakistan and defending champions West Indies, would suggest dominant batting performances befitting of a team that contains some ferocious strikers of the cricket ball. Oh hello, but wait. India was chasing 131 in the first match, one run less in the second. The batsmen did complete victories in both outings, but they were both set up by the bowlers, the much maligned bowlers who have dug deep and come up with the goods in conditions they have thoroughly relished.
 
The one crucial aspect that has contributed to the bowling resurgence is a paradigm shift in the Dhoni thinking. India’s captain is quite the toughest of books to read. He can surprise you with his decision-making, such as throwing the ball to Ishant Sharma during a regulation run chase with defeat staring him in the face and the paceman looking horribly out of sorts, and come out smelling of roses following two wickets in as many deliveries, as happened in the Champions Trophy final against England last June. Or, such as promoting himself, not in the best touch, ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh on a stage as intimidating as the World Cup final, and getting the job done with telling finality.
 
For someone who goes so much with his instinct, Dhoni has also been stubbornly unyielding. He has made his dislike for going in with just two pacers in the limited-overs version, no matter the conditions, all too obvious on numerous occasions. There might be sound logic behind his thinking, but this steadfast refusal to look beyond even when things haven’t gone well has defied the image of a leader who can be both flexible and innovative.
 
In finally opting to break the mould and draft a third spinner in the playing XI, Dhoni has woken up to the reality that India still hasn’t identified a stable back-up to Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, and that it is better off going with Amit Mishra, the experienced leg-spinner who is a proven wicket-taker in the T20 game, alongside R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
 
Perhaps, in some oblique, obtuse way, the side strain that kept Dhoni out of the Asia Cup was a blessing in disguise. Virat Kohli, captain for the tournament, turned to Mishra for the last two league matches and the leggie responded with combined figures of 20-1-49-3 against Pakistan and Afghanistan at the same Sher-e-Bangla Stadium where India will play all its matches in this World T20. With the third seamer having let India down for a long time in One-Day International cricket and with the surface at the Sher-e-Bangla more likely to respond to the craft of a quality spinner, Dhoni opted to bring Mishra back into the T20I playing XI for the first time in 45 months. Mishra hasn’t disappointed – 4 for 40 from eight overs, two man-of-the-match awards. Point made, case settled. For now at least.
 
Mishra’s role in bowling resurgence can’t be overstated. He is at his best when he is looking for wickets, and having included him in the XI, that’s exactly what Dhoni has asked of him. To attack, not look to contain; to flight the ball and give it a rip, not fire it in at the stumps and simply try to get his four overs out of the way. It hasn’t taken Mishra, understandably nervous on his comeback, long to respond to his captain’s urgings. The genuine wicket-taking threat he brings in the middle overs is one of the primary reasons for neither Pakistan nor West Indies dominating the bowling at any stage of their batting stints.
 
It has, of course, helped that Ashwin is bowling beautifully without commensurate reward, that Bhuvneshwar is skilled enough and intelligent enough to make capital of whatever assistance there might be under lights in terms of swing, that Shami lends the cutting edge with his added pace, and that Jadeja is usually remarkably accurate, never mind the off-day against West Indies. Dhoni has only used three overs of part-time options out of 40 in the last two games, the most iron-clad indication that the specialist bowlers are doing their job. It’s not a position he has been in all that often.
 
As is his wont, Dhoni wasn’t getting carried away, though. When someone sought to know if his smile was a result of two exemplary bowling displays, Dhoni chose his words carefully, and ended up with a profound observation. “I was always smiling. Even when we lose games, I smile because I know cricket is a big part of our lives but it is not the only life that we live,” he said, almost echoing Boris Becker’s ‘No one died out there, I just lost a tennis match’ after his shock loss at the hands of Peter Doohan at Wimbledon in 1987.
 
“Of course you feel disappointed when you are not doing well, but still you know it is a sport, it is a game,” Dhoni went on. “There will be times when you will lose, when you won’t win.”
 
There is, of course, the underlying fear of when the bubble will burst, when the dam will be breached, when the floodgates will open. When it happens, as it will someday given the very nature of the T20 format, it won’t be pretty, but it’s better to conceded 180 with your strongest bowling attack than 220 with a combination you know is a compromise option.
 
For now, Dhoni and the think tank will be chuffed at the way the bowlers have gone. There is plenty of cricket to be played in the tournament yet, but as starts go, this one will be hard to beat.

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