By Nishad Pai Vaidya
For the weaker sides, playing a World Cup game against a big opponent is a huge moment, but also one that can be unnerving. However, for the Afghanistan cricket team – a bunch of men who have suffered war and unrest for years – pressure probably wasn’t a significant factor, but it did affect them. Their spirit and fearlessness was evident when they played India in their first game of the ICC World T20 2012. The star-studded Indian line-up had a number of nervous moments in the field as Afghanistan enhanced their reputation with a gutsy performance. A more experienced side with more finesse would have sealed the deal – something Afghanistan will learn as they play more games.
Afghanistan looked a positive unit with a good body language to back their strengths. Putting India in to bat was a signal of intent from the captain Nawroz Mangal. A lot of it may have had to do with India’s bowling – one that was brutally decimated in the warm-up game against Pakistan. Shapoor Zadran backed his captain’s decision by bowling a spirited spell upfront. As the commentators pointed out, he was hitting the right areas and getting enough movement to trouble the batsmen. To dismiss Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag early speaks volumes of his efforts.
The Indian batsmen looked a little out of sorts. Coming into the game at the back of a fantastic performance against Pakistan, this innings was very sedate. The two early wickets rocked the line-up and it required a good knock from Virat Kohli to stabilise the ship. Yuvraj Singh gave him company, but didn’t go on to make a big one. Suresh Raina added crucial runs which helped India towards the end. Surprisingly, it was a quiet innings when compared to his usual belligerent knocks in T20 cricket. In hindsight, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s two boundaries (a four and a six) off the last two deliveries were very crucial when one brings into context the margin of victory.
The thing that let Afghanistan down was their fielding. Had they held on to a few chances, India would have certainly been on the mat. Dropping Kohli – particularly when he is in the form of his life – is an unpardonable error and it was obvious that it would cost them. Had Raina been caught early in his innings, India’s innings would have panned out a lot different.
India’s bowling has been a huge talking point – especially after the defeat to Pakistan in the warm-up. Many suggested that Dhoni should field five bowlers as the batting is strong and doesn’t need the extra batsman. The argument makes sense when one brings into perspective the fact that Irfan Pathan is a batsman in his own right and that Ravichandran Ashwin is also capable of wielding his willow. However, would the inclusion of a fifth bowler help? After all, five front-line bowlers bowled in the warm-up game against Pakistan.
Yuvraj’s good bowling performance may support Dhoni’s strategy of playing four bowlers. It was due to Yuvraj’s efforts that Afghanistan stuttered in the middle. His three wicket-haul came at a crucial time – when the opponents were building a base to tee-off. He may have been hit for two sixes in his final overs, but his overall figures still make a good reading and that shows how well he bowled early on. This is exactly what he did at the 2011 World Cup i.e. chipping in with wickets and putting pressure on the batsmen.
The biggest worry is Zaheer Khan - who is generally the dependable force of the bowling line-up. For years he has been a talismanic bowler rallying the others around him. His mere presence in the attack adds great strength and it looks a much stronger unit. Uncharacteristically, he has struggled in the shortest format as a career economy rate of 7.93 in T20 internationals doesn’t justify his ability. For two consecutive games, he has failed to produce the goods in the slog overs and it is worrying because one felt he is a certainty in the eleven.
India have traditionally been tentative starters at World Cups and have peaked at the right time when they have recorded good campaigns. At the ICC World T20 2007, they got into their act in the Super Eights and went on to lift the trophy. In the 2011 World Cup, one wouldn’t have put their money on India a few games into the tournament, but they went on to fulfil the dream of a nation. Dhoni and his men would take hope from this fact and raise the bar as time progresses.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a correspondent with CricketCountry and an analyst for the site’s YouTube Channel. He shot to fame by spotting a wrong replay during IPL4 which resulted in Sachin Tendulkar's dismissal. His insights on the game have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nishad_44)