By Nishad Pai Vaidya
The army from Delhi conquered Hambantota with a clinical performance that set the tone for India’s campaign in Sri Lanka. Battling rustiness after a long break, Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli approached the task at hand with phenomenal maturity and helped India to a formidable total. The two are on the opposite ends of the spectrum – one is a youngster who has become a force to reckon with, while the other is a senior statesman with a unique mindset. It was a refreshing change to watch them bat together and make a mark on India’s return to the field of play.
It was encouraging to see Sehwag apply himself in the middle and script a measured knock. There were a few nervous moments early on when he was dropped by Tillakartne Dilshan. He didn’t look comfortable as he couldn’t find the middle of the bat. In such a situation, the typical Sehwag would have played a shot to get out of jail. However, he maintained his cool and attacked only when the ball was in his zone. His first boundary eased him in as he waited for the ball and timed it without a hint of power. Watching Sehwag show such responsibility was encouraging and even with such an approach, he managed to maintain a very good strike-rate.
Words fall short when you have to describe Kohli’s progress over the last one year. The Indian ship has rocked after the 2011 World Cup, but this youngster has moved from strength to strength symbolising the hope of a much needed recovery. In his last five One-Day Internationals (ODIs), Kohli has hit an awesome purple patch. Four centuries in five innings speaks of brilliant consistency and confidence.
During the last four ODI hundreds, Kohli has exhibited different aspects to his game. In the game at Hobart against Sri Lanka, when India had to score 321 in 40 overs, Kohli was a dasher who was defying the odds stacked against his team. Even though India didn’t make it to the tri-series final, that knock is unforgettable, particularly because of the special treatment he meted out to the dangerous Lasith Malinga. No batsman had ever been so audacious in his strokeplay against the yorker specialist until Kohli showed that it was possible.
When India faced Sri Lanka in their first game at the Asia Cup, Kohli’s knock was measured and he kept rotating the strike with Gautam Gambhir – which created a platform for the middle order to launch. The conditions weren’t the easiest and the duo had to assess the situation and build a total. Then came the big moment against the arch-rivals, Pakistan. Chasing 330, Kohli’s 183 was a mix of exuberance and maturity that absorbed the pressure surrounding the contest and clinched a famous victory for India. India had to win that game to stay alive in the competition and the pressure always intensifies when they play Pakistan. Once Pakistan put 329 on the board, the task got even tougher until Kohli made it look like a cinch.
In his latest outing, Kohli played with confidence that personifies his spirit. Even with Sehwag struggling a little at the other end, Kohli didn’t get bogged down and played positive strokes to take the pressure off his partner. That allowed Sehwag to get into his groove and express himself as the innings progressed. Once Sehwag started playing strokes, Kohli took the responsibility of staying at the crease and constructing the innings.
As one of the commentators pointed out, Kohli has shown remarkable ability to switch gears over the last few months. Not many batsmen can do it with such confidence as it is more of a psychological barrier. His sound temperament has allowed him to take his game to the next level and brought him the vice-captaincy of the Indian team. However, the most heartening aspect of him reaching his hundred was that there were no angry celebrations. It was a simple one where the helmet came off, the bat went up in the air and a smile that reflected pure delight.
On the bowling front, India have a few worries as Zaheer Khan, Pragyan Ojha and Umesh Yadav went for too many. Zaheer was good in the initial overs when he helped maintain the pressure with Irfan Pathan. It was a crucial phase as India didn’t allow the Sri Lankans to get off to a flyer. The most worrying factor was the number of wides – 15 in all. It is a very high number for any bowling attack at the highest level.
Ravichandran Ashwin maintained a good line and length and complemented the new ball bowlers well. His bowling spell was probably as crucial as the Sehwag knock when one considers the margin of victory. The surprise package of the day was Pathan – whose spell of two for 37 in ten overs made up for all the damage. Prior to this game, it looked unlikely that he would play, but Dhoni wanted to maintain balance and drafted him in as an all-rounder. It is a good start to the series for him and certainly silences his critics for the time being.
Going into this series, the main focus for India was a significant improvement and putting behind the tough last season. One a whole, Dhoni would be a happy man as his batsmen got the runs and the bowlers finished the job. Nevertheless, the bowlers could have done a cleaner job. It is early in the series and they may be a bit rusty. As the series progresses, we would get a fair idea of the form of this attack.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)