After two months of one-sided matches in the marathon five-match Test series, it is good to see some intense competition take place between India and England, with the limited-overs side of the latter, under the captaincy of Eoin Morgan, making the hosts fight for every run, wicket and indeed, victory.
India were made to dish out their very best till the very last ball of the second Twenty20 International (T20I) was bowled, and it took a remarkable spell of death bowling by Jasprit Bumrah to defend the modest total that they had put up earlier.
While captain Virat Kohli, coach Anil Kumble, and the rest of the players and staff can celebrate their win that keeps them alive in the ongoing series, they have to address a few chinks in their armour if they are to deny England the chance to lift at least one trophy before boarding the flight to the West Indies.
However, let us first celebrate the return of some individuals back to stellar form. Whether it were Bumrah and KL Rahul silencing their critics after feeding them with a string of poor performances, or Ashish Nehra’s successful return from a hamstring injury that had put him out of cricketing action from May last year.
The Indian top-order failed to get going once again in this match, although this time it was not captain Virat Kohli carrying the burden of scoring the bulk of runs alone on his shoulders. Rahul, who had put up a valiant 199 in Chennai earlier in the Test series, had suffered a dip in form throughout the one-day leg as well as in the first T20I, much like Ajinkya Rahane during New Zealand’s tour of India.
With the growing clamour for the axe to finally fall on him — something that would have preposterous to think of not too long ago – playing on his mind, his whirlwind innings of 71 off 47 balls could not have come at a better time to remind the selectors as well as fans of the value that he still can offer the team. Even as Kohli, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh returned to the dug-out early, Rahul kept the show going from one end with ambitious, but mostly textbook, shots.
His innings had set the tone for a 160-plus total, and it took a Chris Jordan spell in the death overs, one that could rival Bumrah’s, to ruin that prospect. Finishing with figures of 3/22 after four overs, Jordan reminded everyone why he was England’s go-to bowler in the format. Along with Moeen Ali’s economical 1/20, Morgan’s men were successful in restricting the hosts to another sub-150 total.
Yet another bowling performances to talk about heading into the final game of the series, and Jordan’s ability to subdue even the likes of MS Dhoni in the last couple of overs bodes well for the team in coming battles.
Despite England hardly breaking a sweat in the 148-run chase in the first match, India still had hope of their bowlers being able to befuddle the English batsmen, given the demons in the pitch are known to play tricks as the play progresses. One could draw inspiration from the Kiwis in the ICC World T20 last year, when they flew high by successfully defending a 126-run total, thanks mostly to their spinners.
English openers Jason Roy and Sam Billings, themselves in destructive form at the moment, had got off to a steady start in the first two overs and smacked a six each off Bumrah’s bowling in the third over. The duo had got their side off to a fantastic start at Kanpur, and needed a similar push to make their mission of clinching the series a much easier task.
Nehra, though, had different plans that day, and decided to reduce his length to Billings, who was looking to hit every ball out of the park at that stage. The extra bounce surprised him, and resulted in a top-edge to Bumrah at midwicket. Next ball, Roy was taken by surprise after the ball stopped on him, resulting in another leading edge, this time much closer to mid-on. Two-in-two for the veteran pacer, and suddenly the Jamtha crowd found their voices again.
At an age when even a single injury can mean the end of one’s career, Nehra played like he had hardly aged; his exuberance on the field matching that of the 20-somethings he shares the dressing room with. Even though Jos Buttler took some of that sheen off with a six and a four in his penultimate over, he was as instrumental in setting up India’s win as Bumrah and Rahul were.
It would be a grave sin to talk about the English middle-order without a mention of Joe Root and Ben Stokes, both of whom forged a crucial 50-plus stand on Sunday to rescue the Englishmen from a risky 65/3 to a position from where the finish line was easily visible.
After being dealt with a body blow in captain Morgan’s dismissal, the duo took the attack to the spinners against the run-of-play to put the pressure right back on the visitors (although Stokes was helped by Mishra bowling a front-foot no-ball in the delivery in which his off-stump was rattled).
Hope still lay with the hosts, for they had bowlers who could match up to Jordan’s calibre, if not fare better in the last five overs. Nehra promptly trapped Stokes lbw with a clever change of pace, with Bumrah drying the runs up from the other end. Even though the former got hit for 16 runs in the 19th over, defending eight runs off the last six balls was not a herculean task for Bumrah.
The pacer gave away just two runs while using the slower delivery to good effect to get two wickets in the final over, and seal the deal. Given the number of times he had conceded a front-foot no-ball that saved an English batsman from heading back to the pavilion, or struggled with his grip to give away juicy full-tosses, Bumrah somewhat redeemed himself with one of his most memorable overs so far, even if Root’s dismissal at the start of the over was unfortunate to say the least (getting adjudged lbw when there was a clear inside-edge).
The stage could not have been prepared in a better way for an ultimate showdown between these two powerhouses on Wednesday, with the series-decider set to take place in Bengaluru on Wednesday, 1 February. Kohli, as well as quite a few of his team-mates know the place rather well, given a certain Twenty20 extravaganza that takes place annually, and this victory will put them in the right frame of mind to gun for a 2-1 series result.
England, however, will remind themselves of the meteoric rise that they have charted in limited-overs cricket in their recent years. One thing’s for sure – they won’t go down without a counter-punch onto their opponent’s jaw. Till then, let’s see if their feedback to match referee Andy Pycroft on the poor state of umpiring in the Nagpur fixture bears any fruit in the coming game.