India's captain and batsman Mahendra Singh Dhoni takes a pause during the World T20 cricket tournament match between India and New Zealand
MS Dhoni was dismissed for 30 after waging a lone battle © AFP

India started ICC World T20 2016 as firm favourites. New Zealand came to Nagpur following an impressive run, but that was not taken seriously, for as far as pitches go, New Zealand and India are significantly different. This was Nagpur, where India had routed South Africa in a Test last year. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, stars of that 3-0 series triumph, were both in the side. With the pitch promising turn and India having two men that could exploit the condition to the fullest, not many gave New Zealand a chance — for what were Nathan McCullum, Ish Sodhi, and Mitchell Santner compared to Ashwin and Jadeja?

Had MS Dhoni read the pitch wrong? He probably did not want to break the winning combination, thus retaining all three seamers; in the process he left out Harbhajan Singh, who might have been more than a handful.

Kane Williamson, on the other hand, backed his three spinners. In Tim Southee, Trent Boult, and Mitchell McClenaghan, he had a trio of quality seamers, but he decided to leave out all of them. They scoffed at him all over social media, but Williamson knew exactly what he was doing, going in with three spinners. He did have two seamers: one, Corey Anderson, his all-rounder; the other, Adam Milne, who could generate pace, thus reducing the conditions to redundancy. ALSO READ – India vs New Zealand, T20 World Cup 2016: What was worse, Nagpur’s pitch or India’s batting?

The other strategy was, of course, to attack when the ball was still new. Martin Guptill fell for a 2-ball 6, but that did not stop newcomer Colin Munro from going after Ashwin the same over.

When Munro fell, Williamson promoted Anderson above Ross Taylor and Grant Elliott. The message was clear: he was going for the kill against the new ball. It did not matter to Anderson that Ashwin was bowling: he took his risks and got two boundaries in the fifth over.

Williamson was probably planning to bat through. By this time Dhoni had caught up. He knew there was one seamer more and one spinner less, and tossed the ball at Suresh Raina. It worked, and when Raina snared Williamson, the match stood on the balance, and as Jasprit Bumrah kept firing those yorkers, Anderson and Taylor resorted to more sedate roles.

It seemed the day would be Raina’s, when he pulled off his act of the day by running out Taylor in spectacular fashion. Jadeja bowled wides (4 of them), but was accurate otherwise. Ashwin had an off-day (to be fair, he struck with the second ball of the match), but Jadeja and Raina (8-0-42-2 between them) made up for that. ALSO READ: New Zealand spin out high-flying India, serve wake-up call in T20 World Cup 2016

But they still had Bumrah to contend with, as well as Ashish Nehra. Hardik Pandya was tried in vain, but Nehra and Bumrah looked impressive. With wickets falling at regular intervals, the New Zealand middle-order rose to the challenge. Runs did not come easily; Anderson, Santner, Elliott, and Luke Ronchi had to scrap for runs; but they made sure they batted 20 overs and got those runs. They did not try anything fancy, for they knew the more they scratched around for runs, the more difficult it would be.

When Taylor fell the score read 61 for 4 after 11.3 overs. The last 8.3 overs saw New Zealand put up another 64. The number may not look big, but it probably looks humongous, given how much India scored in the end. The significance of those 51 balls came back to haunt India.

But India erred again, and this time it was worse than before. By now the devils in the pitch were known. India knew they had to chase 127 in 20 overs. Less than a month back they were up against Pakistan’s 84, and were reduced to 8 for 3 by a rampant Mohammad Aamer. Before that Sri Lanka had bowled them out for 101 at Pune. India have been excellent in T20Is of late, but not when things looked difficult.

Williamson opened with McCullum. Shikhar Dhawan tried to sweep across the line and missed, and was caught in front. It could have happened to any batsman, but even if Dhawan’s sweep had come off, he would have got a single, at most. It was not a stroke that would have yielded a six, or even a boundary. After a quiet over from Anderson, Williamson immediately turned to Santner, for India had two right-handers.

Rohit, despite having watched 20 overs on the field, decided to go the Guptill way. While Guptill was helping launch an onslaught, Rohit was chasing 127; some would say he was doing the right thing, not allowing the spinner to settle down; it was also a high-percentage shot; there could have been a six. Unfortunately, he committed himself to the point of no return.

At this stage India required a partnership to steady the ship. Virat Kohli, in ominous form, needed someone to rotate strike. Both Raina and Yuvraj Singh were caught in two minds, using enough bottom-hand to lob the ball and lose their wickets.

It was not quality bowling. It was accurate bowling, playing on the patience of the Indians.

But they needed one top-notch delivery, which came from Sodhi. Kohli, who was batting like a dream as he saw wickets tumbling, fell to one that Sodhi really let rip. The ball would not turned as much on a flat track, but India’s tailor-made pitch made that delivery turn a mile, catch Kohli’s edge, and thud into the big gloves behind.

Santner did the age-old trick on young Pandya: slow spin, slow spin, and so on, then bowl one straight and quick, and catch the batsman in front.

Jadeja followed the same way as Raina and Yuvraj. Worse, he was not even trying to play straight. The match was sealed. The batsmen had refused to help Kohli, and later, Dhoni, build up anything substantial.

***

But the crowd refused to leave till Dhoni was out. When Dhoni fell India needed 48 from 14 balls, but the crowd hung around, for they believed their captain could conjure something out of it.

It did not work at Nagpur, for it was not supposed to happen; India had made errors, and paid for them. But the crowd still had their unwavering support for Dhoni, as did the fans, and, of course, players.

Dhoni has made mistakes in the past. He made some at Nagpur. But he has helped India regroup in past, changing strategies on the move, inspiring his side with his emotionless presence on the ground and that bardiche he calls a bat.

There is no reason to believe that there will not be an encore. The bowlers did click, after all. Kohli did look fabulous while he was there.

India were not outclassed. They were outwitted. There is no reason for them to not get over it and bounce back.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)