India’s 16-man squad for the ongoing tour of Zimbabwe is laden with fresh faces and bereft of an identity. But, what we cannot afford to overlook is the Twenty20 (T20) cricket experience all but one (Faiz Fazal) of these players have garnered by playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL). A few of them – Jaydev Unadkat, Mandeep Singh, Rishi Dhawan, and Kedar Jadhav – played very little cricket for their franchises during IPL 2016, and can be given the benefit of the doubt for lack of match practice and rhythm.
Still, Zimbabwe’s first T20I victory is special because they are even more of an unknown commodity than this Indian side. The hosts were also under extreme pressure before the start of the T20 series against the Men in Blue, following their fans’ scathing attack on them during the third ODI. In addition to having put on a show for their fans, Zimbabwe can also take great heart from the fact they beat a team which has IPL experience, unlike them.
From India’s perspective, what went wrong for MS Dhoni’s men? Let us discuss here.
First T20I: Causes for India’s Defeat
Graeme Cremer had said: “Maybe this T20 series is just what we need to get back into the positive frame of mind.” Zimbabwe skipper’s claim was not difficult to comprehend. His batsmen let the team down during the ODIs and one of the reasons for their failure was the ineptitude to stymie India’s new ball bowling and spend time at the crease. Occupying the crease was even more important in Zimbabwe’s case because they batted first in all three ODIs and had to contend with the early morning freshness.
The T20 matches have been scheduled to begin at 1:00 PM local time and the early morning freshness is, therefore, not going to be a factor. And, T20 cricket, by its nature, affords batsmen plenty of freedom to express themselves. So, we did expect the Zimbabwean batsmen to fare a lot better in the T20I series against India. For the hosts to succeed against the Men in Blue, they needed their batsmen to come good.
One of the reasons, therefore, for Zimbabwe’s victory in the first T20I was the performance of the batting unit, after Dhoni won the toss for the third time on this tour and asked the home side to bat first. They reached 170/6 largely because of Elton Chigumbura’s blitzkrieg – a 26-ball 54, an innings in which he struck seven towering sixes – at the end, but there were relatively significant contributions elsewhere in the batting order too: Chamu Chibhabha (20), Hamilton Masakadza (25), Sikandar Raza (20), and Malcolm Waller’s (30) knocks made sure that the Zimbabwe innings didn’t implode and they were well poised to reach at least 150.
From the visitors’ vantage point, I really did not expect Dhoni to make the changes he did, to India’s playing XI for the first T20I yesterday. India produced a pristine performance in the third ODI and only five – KL Rahul, Ambati Rayudu, Karun Nair, Fazal, and Manish Pandey, who faced just one delivery – of their batsmen had got chances to bat during the course of the three-match ODI series.
Fazal, who was replaced by Mandeep for the first T20I, made an eye-catching 55* in the final ODI, and there was no reason to axe him in the name of ‘rest’. R Dhawan’s inclusion was befuddling too, as he is another one of those bits-and-pieces cricketers who guarantee a captain nothing. He came in place of Dhawal Kulkarni, a specialist bowler, and R Dhawan is not efficient with the willow in his hand either. So, I would not have been too keen on injecting R Dhawan, if I was Dhoni. The Himachal Pradesh man affected the balance of India’s playing XI for yesterday’s game. The other replacement, Unadkat, is among the crop of players in this Indian squad who have not had match practice – the Saurashtra seamer last played a competitive cricket match on April 28th for Delhi Daredevils (DD).
None of the three changes delivered viable results for India, who hence had more than a few shortcomings in the batting and bowling departments. Coming in place of Kulkarni and Barinder Sran, R Dhawan and Unadkat were not only ineffective but also failed to stop the hemorrhage of runs. Unadkat’s final and Zimbabwe’s penultimate over of the innings cost India a whopping 21 runs and changed the complexion of the game massively. R Dhawan was predictable with the lines and lengths he bowled and due to his lack of pace, Zimbabwe batsmen were able to line him up. Mandeep played some attractive strokes off the front and back foot during his 27-ball 31. But, with India in pursuit of a stiff target (171), Mandeep’s knock did not aid them.
The lack of meaningful contributions from the personnel who came into India’s playing XI, is one of the major reasons why the visitors lost for the first time on their tour of Zimbabwe.
Talking of firsts, the Indian batting line-up was put under pressure and it was unable to thrive. Zimbabwe did not bat well in any of the three ODIs and with measly targets of 169, 127 and 124 to chase down, Indian batsmen had plenty of time to wipe away the deficits. The change in format from ODIs to T20Is probably did not favour the Indian batsmen, many of whom had not batted before on this tour. The likes of Rayudu, Mandeep, Jadhav, and Pandey took time to get going. The Indian batsmen were also kept in check by the Zimbabwe bowlers, who complemented their batting unit’s performance really well. They also carried a wicket-taking threat.
With just six batsmen, India were in a dicey situation for more than one reason. Only two of them had batted before on this tour – if you exclude Pandey – and the other batsmen, understandably, needed time to get their eye in. And, because the required run-rate was 8.55 runs-per-over at the start of the innings, every dot ball counted for a lot. The visitors were chasing the game all the time and never really got ahead of it. Pandey’s 48 (35) was admirable and again showed that he has a good head on his shoulders. While he was in the middle with Dhoni, I believed that he would repeat his heroics from Sydney, where he helped India chase down a gargantuan 331 in the last, inconsequential ODI against Australia earlier this year.
But should he have tried to play that hoick over long-off, which undid him? I do not think so, for the simple reason that India, who needed 27 off 17 before the Kolkata Knight Rider’s dismissal, were in control of the target and Pandey and Dhoni were the last recognised batsmen in the middle. They batted well as a pair, running swiftly between the wickets and getting the odd boundary to keep the required run-rate under control. You could say that India let themselves down with some poor batting towards the end and you would not be wrong at all. India needed to score just eight runs off the last over, with Dhoni and Axar Patel, who was hitting the ball well, in the middle. So, rationally, India should have walloped it, but we cannot fail to see the game from another angle.
Because India were playing with only six batsmen, and Dhoni was the No. 6 batsman, he should have taken the mantle upon himself and finished off the game. He has done it on so many occasions and been an extremely successful chaser of targets in ODIs and T20Is, but the 34-year old could not bring his big-hitting prowess to the fore yesterday, against Neville Madziva, who, let us face it, bowled brilliantly. Dhoni, in my opinion, should take a part of the blame for India losing a close game by two runs. His struggle to find the boundaries was not hard to discern. A year ago, the Indian skipper would have nailed the two balls off which he scored only singles in the last over of the game. And, with no specialist batsman at the other end, Dhoni was helpless. Which is also the reason why I say that Pandey could, and probably should, have delayed going for the full monty – and hung in there with Dhoni.
Zimbabwe’s victory in the first T20I is just what this tour and importantly, the series needed. India do not have many options to call upon. Although the errors made by the Men in Blue were subtle, they cost them the game. Ahead of the second T20I, India must assess if they want to stick with R Dhawan, as he is affecting the balance of the side. As for Zimbabwe, they need to remain focussed and guard against complacency. They can definitely beat India in the T20I series, but the nature of this format is such that even the minute errors can prove costly.
Cricket fans are in for a treat now!