Old wounds were reopened and old doubts were brought to the fore as India teased, tormented and spun England to its doom at the R Premadasa Stadium on a dramatic Sunday night. This was to have been a battle of heavyweights for bragging rights, if nothing else. Instead, it degenerated into a horrible mismatch, as India used spin as the weapon of destruction to romp to a comprehensive and unforeseen 90-run triumph.
Bogged down by self-doubt and the intangible pressure of playing a rank outsider in its opening Group A clash against Afghanistan, India thus finished its league engagements in the ICC World Twenty20 on a high, and will go into the Super Eights with its confidence bolstered after eliciting heart-warming performances from Rohit Sharma. Harbhajan Singh and Piyush Chawla, the spin twins brought in for this game, took 6 for 25 in eight overs.
Rohit had scored his first international half-century since March to propel India to 170 for 4, slightly more than middling but far from intimidating. Less than halfway through the English chase, that total appeared positively daunting as England dug a deep hole for itself, its continued travails against the turning ball exemplified by the vice-like grip exercised by Harbhajan’s off-spin and Chawla’s leg-spin.
England was shot out for just 80, its lowest Twenty20 International total, and humiliated as its defence of the title won in 2010 ran into an early roadblock.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni put out a rejigged XI, resting Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and R Ashwin and fielding five specialist bowlers. The new-look unit responded admirably to the challenge, particularly in the field. Irfan Pathan, one of few men to open both the batting and the bowling in Twenty20 Internationals, cleaned up Alex Hales and Luke Wright in an inspired first spell marked by swing and accuracy, but with Craig Kieswetter firing on all cylinders, there was little hint of the collapse to follow.
Things began to happen immediately after Harbhajan was introduced in the sixth over. He struck with his second delivery on his comeback to the Indian team – his last international outing was in August 2011 – by dismissing Eoin Morgan, triggering an astonishing collapse that saw England lost 8 for 41, and that only because Steven Finn and Jade Dernbach, the last pair, put on 20.
Harbhajan finished with the best figures by an Indian in Twenty20Is, 4-2-12-4, while Chawla, in his first game for India since the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, was no less impressive with 4-1-13-2. England’s brave young middle order was completely clueless against the turning ball – and truth to tell, it was neither diabolical nor over the top – something that England’s Super Eight opponents including Sri Lanka will have taken note of.
India began breezily enough through its new opening combination of Pathan and Gautam Gambhir, who looked in particularly good touch early on. Pathan was cleaned up by Finn, but that signalled the classiest batting phase of the match as Virat Kohli batted like a dream.
Kohli has been in glorious touch for over a year now, batting not just with flair but with the supreme authority that comes from loads of confidence. He began with a sparkling square-drive second ball, forced Stuart Broad on the up through point a couple of deliveries later, and drew rapturous applause from a full house that was decidedly pro-India.
India smashed 52 off the Power Play overs but strangely, there was no acceleration worth the name until the final four overs, when Rohit finally showcased the immense potential he has always possessed. Until Rohit upped the tempo, however, India’s innings meandered along, wickets in hand notwithstanding. Kohli’s occasional flashes of brilliance apart, the boundaries were few and far between, runs coming through ones and twos even as England slipped a long way from its usually high fielding standards.
Gambhir played well within himself while Kohli couldn’t put away Graeme Swann, easily England’s best bowler during an unchanged four-over spell. Swann’s off-spin wasn’t exactly a foretaste of things to come, though at times he did get the ball to turn sharply, and found reward when Kohli tonked him down deep mid-wicket’s throat.
Kohli’s dismay at having thrown his hand away was all too obvious because of late, he has made it a habit to build on starts. He was the dominant partner in a second-wicket stand of 57 with Gambhir, whose contribution was just 15, and though Gambhir did accelerate upon Rohit’s arrival, he didn’t quite have the energy to cash in on Kieswetter missing a stumping off Swann when he was 26.
India had failed to kick on from 80 for 1 after ten, and looked to have sold itself short when Rohit came to its rescue. Without an international half-century for seven innings – which only yielded 18 runs – Rohit was under immense pressure, but he couldn’t have chosen a better time to return to run-scoring ways.
With Dhoni’s guiding hand for support, Rohit was clearly in his element. Crucially, he didn’t try to attack from the off, playing himself in, sussing up the conditions and then launching a stunning assault towards the end that drove England to distraction. Between overs 17 and 20, he alone smashed four fours and a six. England, disciplined and pumped up against Afghanistan, went completely off the boil, the first indication that this wasn’t going to be its night.