Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik
Rishabh Pant (L) and Dinesh Karthik (AFP Photo)

India’s recent ruthless success in limited-overs format coupled with a weakened Australian team have meant Virat Kohli’s men have the best chance of winning on this tour Down Under. But going by the result in the first T20I of the three-match series at Brisbane on Wednesday, it isn’t going to be any smoother than the last time.

The rain-affected first contest saw Australia’s batsmen pile up 158/4 in 17 overs after being put in, but India fell four short of the revised 174-run target, despite Shikhar Dhawan’s heroic 42-ball 76. Featuring new players in alien conditions, India did come close, but the inexperience of some of the players proved to be the difference in the end.

There was yet a silver lining in the form of India’s two wicketkeepers in a pressure run chase, as both Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik took the visitors within touching distance of Australia’s total. MS Dhoni’s removal from the T20I team had caused an uproar leading into the tour of Australia, but both Pant and Karthik, at significantly different stages of their careers, put up 51 runs in less than four overs to keep India in the run.

In his first T20 game as first choice wicketkeeper, Pant was tidy behind the stumps and started his innings in the hurriedness we have become accustomed to from the Delhi player. A towering six and a four next ball began a huge 25-run 14th over, but his wild swipes didn’t find him enough gaps at this humongous stadium. Karthik, on the other hand, rarely showed signs of straining himself while clearing the fence.

Another day would’ve seen Pant clearing boundaries with ease, but he will have learned immensely from watching Karthik from the other end. The senior player, almost shut out from selection once Dhoni’s career blossomed, has breathed new life into his career with that nine-ball epic in the Nidahas Trophy final. He wasn’t even set to be on the plane to Australia, but his 13-ball 30 with four fours and a six came at a strike-rate better than anyone else in this game. And he damn near has a career strike-rate matching Kohli’s.

India’s bowling was largely effective but may have gone in to the contest one spinner too many, with Krunal Pandya being clubbed for six sixes in his four overs, while Kuldeep Yadav kept it tight from the other end. Khaleel Ahmed, the young fast bowler, will also learn on this tour the hard way the lengths one can bowl in these conditions, having gone for 42 from his three overs.

India’s lack of middle order options with the bat have meant captain Kohli has had to slide down to No. 4 and that may have played a part in India’s failed run chase on Thursday, as neither Rohit Sharma nor KL Rahul could set the stage ablaze. By the time the Indian captain had come in, the asking rate had climbed up significantly.

Dhawan’s dismissal in a bid to up the scoring rate brought India’s two wicketkeeper-batsmen at the crease, and both Pant and Karthik took it upon themselves to take India over the line, only to fall short at the last hurdle.

Ten years ago kickstarted the glorious reign of Dhoni as India’s captain and premier wicketkeeper-batsman, in Australia in that CB Series. For both Pant and Karthik, this series matters just as much, especially with the 2019 ICC World Cup knocking at the door.