VVS-Laxman-with-text

Just before Asia Cup 2016 started, I stated in my column that India are the strong favourites to lift the title, therefore it hardly came as a surprise when MS Dhoni held the trophy aloft in Mirpur last Sunday. However, what was impressive was the ruthlessness with which India swept the best in Asia aside, their intensity unwavering and their hunger seemingly insatiable.

It was a remarkably professional and clinical performance by the Indian team. Generally, the words ‘professional’ and ‘clinical’ can be construed to indicate effectiveness more than attractiveness. However, that was not the case when it came to India. They thoroughly entertained the fans and played with refreshing positivity.

What came as a big surprise was the nature of surfaces at the Shere Bangla Stadium. Admittedly, the tracks during the Under-19 World Cup at the same venue were a little spiced up, but I personally thought with the World T20 around the corner, the tracks would revert to playing low and slow, with a little bit of help for the spinners. They did not, and that was not necessarily the worst thing, because it made for a fairly even contest between the bat and the seaming, swinging ball. Twenty20 seldom encourages pitches with help for the bowlers, so this was a pleasant change and made for interesting contests that had the connoisseurs on the edge of their seats.

India’s adaptability was particularly eye-catching. Rohit Sharma showed how much he has matured as a batsman with a brilliant knock in the first match, when the ball was moving in the air and laterally off the deck as well. He was a little fortunate to be put down early in his innings, but the manner in which he played after that was simply outstanding. And when he cut loose towards the end, it was breathtaking. Rohit is blessed with the ability to put even the good balls away for fours and sixes, and his final assault was all Rohit — I cannot think of another batsman who could have played the kind of strokes that Rohit did in that game.

Ironically, that was the only game in which India’s player of the tournament failed. Virat Kohli was dismissed cheaply against Bangladesh, but kicked up a notch or two in subsequent games to re-establish his credentials as the lynchpin of this formidable Indian batting line up. Kohli has always been the master of the chase, but now, he is a more rounded T20 batsman because he was worked out ways to score quickly without resorting to unorthodoxy. His situational awareness is second to none. He has improved both his offensive and defensive techniques and, at No. 3, is the fulcrum around which the Indian batting revolves, a role that he positively relishes.

His batting against Mohammad Aamer was the highlight of the tournament to me. Aamer was sensational, producing perfect deliveries to get rid of Rohit and Ajinkya Rahane. Both deliveries, in the region of 146 kmph, swung late into the right-handers who knew what was coming, but were powerless in keeping the ball out. That was where Virat stood out. He took it upon himself to negate Aamer’s threat, playing the ball late and right under his eyes. He then showed everyone who the boss was in Aamer’s final over hitting two fours, the ultimate indication that he is on top of his game.

I am hard pressed to remember a single passage of play throughout the tournament where Virat was in any discomfort. Batsmen often slip into purple patches when the temptation to believe that you can pull off even the most outrageous stroke is very real. Virat has been a steadfast and glorious example, not unaware that he is on top of the game but also not taking any liberties just because he has been batting beautifully. It is a wonderful lesson for other batsmen on how to extend a good run.

One of those is Shikhar Dhawan, who is worth a million dollars when he is on song but whose technique was severely tested earlier in the tournament when the ball was jagging around. After a few modest efforts, he finally came good when it mattered most, in the final. He put the technical issues behind him and came out wanting to impress himself on the opposition. That intent came in handy, though it must be said that in the final against Bangladesh, the ball did not do as much off the track as in some of the earlier games. If Dhawan can fuse caution with natural flamboyance, there will be a greater aura of invincibility about this Indian team.

It can be said with reasonable finality now that the decision to bring Yuvraj Singh back is a success. Yuvi played three knocks of substance, and in my book, the most important of those was the least spectacular. Yuvi only made 14 against Pakistan from 32 deliveries, but he hung in during the difficult times, bringing all his experience into play to keep the Pakistani bowling led by a rampant Aamer at bay. That he was better for having spent time in the middle was evident in the next match when he toyed with the Sri Lankan bowling, and when he was promoted to No. 3 against UAE, he seemed to have completely rediscovered his rhythm, his footwork precise and his balance impeccable.

Hearteningly from an Indian perspective, the two newest members of the side have taken to international cricket immediately, and for that, a lot of credit must go to IPL. I remember being anxious and nervous making my international debut in 1996 because I was going straight from First-Class cricket to the next level. Without undermining First-Class cricket, the step up to the international game is massive, and we were not entirely prepared for that next gradient, having to learn on the job so to say. But Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah, the new kids on the T20 block, and several of their ilk are now in a position to instantly feel at home in international cricket because they have had a fair experience of the IPL, international in all manner of speaking except in its status.

An IPL game is as good as an international game with its immense pressures and the need to win games. It prepares players like nothing else, especially as they have the opportunity to share a dressing-room with some of the legends of the sport from different parts of the globe. Furthermore, they play day in and day out in front of 40,000 to 50,000 fans under lights, and therefore are not transfixed in awe when they turn out for the country. Just from a mindset and preparedness perspective, there is no finer finishing school than IPL.

As has been the case since the tour of Australia, India were well-served by Ashish Nehra and Bumrah, who both not only relished the conditions by picking up wickets but also keeping a tight lid on proceedings. The art of bowling on responsive pitches can be difficult at times, but Nehra’s experience as well as Bumrah’s nous made sure they did not get carried away with all the grass on the surface.

Pandya was an able third seamer, picking up crucial wickets and mostly bowling in the right areas. Pandya is almost the final piece in the puzzle India have been desperately seeking for a while, because he provides that balance as a fast-medium all-rounder that MS has been craving for so long.

Pandya is a ferocious and fearsome striker of the ball, as he showed in the match against Bangladesh, but it is worth remembering that he is still very much work in progress. Both against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, he was dismissed without scoring — albeit by good deliveries. He will still continue to dazzle on flattish pitches but needs to get better on less batting-friendly decks, which I am sure he will, given that he has shown qualities of being a willing and able learner.

The presence in the side of Pandya, and of greater bowling options, saw MS at his proactive best as he marshalled his resources superbly. His bowling changes were spot-on and his bowlers responded in style. Ravichandran Ashwin was once again brilliant, picking up wickets whenever India needed even though there was nothing for him from the pitches. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Harbhajan Singh and Pawan Negi did their cause no harm at all in their only outing of the competition, against UAE.

T20 is the kind of format where it is practically impossible to keep winning every game. Against that backdrop, for India to win 7 on the trot, and 10 of their last 11 games, is a commendable accomplishment. With the batting firing on all cylinders and the bowling complementing the batting, everything points to a fantastic World T20 for India. There will be pressure of playing at home, but at least half-A-dozen players from this team were in the 2011 World Cup-winning side, so they know what that pressure entails and how to handle it.

Of the other teams in the Asia Cup, UAE and Pakistan both caught the eye with their bowling — Pakistan more so — but both teams disappointed with the bat. UAE are still in the throes of learning and so can be excused, but Pakistan were let down by their senior and experienced players, and must address that problem area if they are to make a strong pitch at the World T20. Sri Lanka were a big letdown, their youngsters frittering away one chance after another. They might yet stun the world over the next three-and-a-half weeks, but I personally feel the Sri Lankan rebuilding process will take quite some time.

The most impressive of the rest was Bangladesh, and not just because they reached the final. They have always been extremely talented but post the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand last year, their self-belief has touched new heights. They have some truly exciting and experienced players in their midst. Furthermore, armed with an array of dazzling pacemen, they have the team to be competitive in all conditions. Should they come through the first phase of the World T20 as is expected, they will stretch many a team in the Super 10s.

(VVS Laxman, CricketCountry’s Chief Cricket Mentor, remains one of the finest and most elegant batsmen in history. He was part of the iconic Indian middle-order for over a decade and a half and played 134 Tests and 86 ODIs. He tweets at @vvslaxman281)