The India-Pakistan T20 World Cup clash in Melbourne on Sunday was a game for the ages. In the sheer drama of India getting 28 runs in the last 8 balls, and Virat Kohli ending his lean stretch with his greatest T20 innings, it arguably surpassed even the 2007 T20 World Cup final victory over Pakistan.
The drama began in the second over when 23-year-old Arshdeep Singh, playing his first World Cup match in an iconic cricket stadium packed to its capacity of nearly 100,000, trapped Pakistan skipper Babar Azam LBW with his very first ball. And then he had Pakistan’s second-best batsman, Mohammad Rizwan, caught off a bouncer in his second over.
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But unlike the one-sided game Pakistan won against India in Dubai at last year’s World Cup, this one in Melbourne became a see-saw battle. After going at just a run a ball for 10 overs, Iftikhar Ahmed teed off with four sixes in two overs of spin from Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel. That forced a return to pace, and Mohammed Shami, who hadn’t played a single T20 game for India since the last World Cup, removed Ahmed with the second ball of his new spell.
Hardik Pandya then got into the act with three wickets, continuing his fairy-tale comeback that began with leading Gujarat Titans to this year’s IPL title. Arshdeep Singh chipped in with his third wicket, and Pakistan were 120 for 7 in the 17th over. But they still managed to score 39 in the last 20 balls.
A euphoric victory of the kind India ultimately experienced, can paper over the cracks. Twice they had their arch rivals on the mat: first, when Pakistan’s most prolific scorers left early, and then, at 120 for 7 with only the tail left. Despite the advantage of bowling first on a green wicket in overcast conditions, they ended up chasing a daunting 160 against a formidable attack.
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What complicated matters was a tentative start from India’s openers, who poked and prodded instead of putting some pressure back on the Pakistan pacers. Perhaps it was tactical, because they knew batting would get easier as the ball got older, but it backfired.
With India at 31 for 4 in 6.1 overs, it was Pakistan’s game to lose. Hardik Pandya joined Virat Kohli in the middle to stitch together a partnership. It helped that two spinners were bowling in tandem, with the pacers being rested after the powerplay.
Both teams had made the mistake of fielding two spinners in conditions ideal for pace bowling. Even though India limped to 45 for 4 in 10 overs, with Kohli subdued on 12 off 21 balls, the spinners’ inability to break through on a wicket with no turn proved crucial.
Just like in the Pakistan innings, India’s onslaught against the spinners came in the second half, right after the drinks break. Pandya started it with a boundary off leg-spinner Shadab Khan, followed by a six off the first ball of the next over by Mohammad Nawaz. That galvanized Kohli, who also hit Nawaz for a six.
India regained momentum with 20 runs from the left-arm spinner’s over, just as Pakistan had done earlier with 21 runs from the only over Axar Patel bowled. Kohli began to play with the fluency of old, but Pandya struggled after the Pakistan pace attack returned, scoring only 14 in the 19 balls he faced from that point.
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It goes to show how much of a difference an extra pacer would have made in the middle overs. But Pakistan preferred the batting depth that Nawaz provided, instead of a fourth fast bowler like Mohammad Hasnain.
Despite the shift in momentum and Kohli rediscovering his old self, three economical overs from Shadab Khan, Naseem Shah, and Haris Rauf left India with 48 to score in the last three overs. They would have to match what Australia had done against the same opponent in the 2010 T20 World Cup at Gros Islet in the West Indies—the only other occasion so many runs were scored in the final three overs of a World Cup T20 game.
The odds of an India win became microscopic with 28 runs needed from the last 8 balls. That’s when Kohli made magic.
Pakistan’s best bowler until then, Haris Rauf, who had conceded only 3 runs in the first 4 balls of the 19th over, delivered a ball short of a length rising towards Kohli’s chest. Most batsmen would have attempted a pull or a slash, but Kohli aimed for the relatively shorter straight boundary in Melbourne. He swivelled at the hip, raised his elbows high, and smacked Rauf straight back over his head for a six.
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It was like a Dandiya dance on the eve of Diwali. All those social media short videos you see of Kohli working out with heavy weights in the gym are for moments like these. He followed up with a shot only a batsman of his class could have played: a flick over fine leg for another six, correctly anticipating that Rauf would bowl fuller.
This left 16 to get in the final over from the hapless Nawaz, whom Azam had held back in the hope that his fast bowlers would break the Kohli-Pandya partnership. It was now India in the ascendancy, but it turned into a crazy final over with more ups and downs and twists and turns than you might find in an entire T20 game.
Pandya miscued a slog sweep, new batsman Dinesh Karthik took a single, and Kohli scored a brace, leaving 13 to get in the last 3 balls. Nawaz then erred with a full toss above the waist which Kohli hit for a six. A late call of a no-ball with Kohli gesticulating added to the drama.
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Nawaz overcorrected to deliver a wide, before producing a perfect yorker which bowled Kohli. But the Indians collected 3 byes off the ricochet as it was a free hit. Indian fans in the stands started celebrating with 2 to get in 2 balls. But Karthik made a hash of a sweep to get stumped, leaving Ashwin to score 2 off the final ball.
The canny Chennai cricketer, knowing that Nawaz would target his pads, coolly shimmied to let the ball go behind him for a wide. Then, with the field up to prevent a single off the last ball, he shuffled to the legside for a shot over mid-off for the winning run.
As Kohli put it aptly after the game, Ashwin had used his game intelligence. This ensured Kohli’s heroic innings would be in a winning cause. It kept intact an incredible record: all the 18 times that Kohli has remained unbeaten in T20 run chases, India has won.
Kohli’s resurgence is a huge boost to India’s 2022 World Cup campaign. But they may need to rethink the second spinner option when they face South Africa on the bouncy Perth wicket on Sunday. And the vulnerability of the medium pacers in the death overs, which proved fatal in the Asia Cup, continues to be a bugbear.
Not giving Arshdeep Singh a third over with the swinging new ball, after he had dismissed the Pakistan openers, was a faulty call. Picking Karthik ahead of Pant remains arguable. And the Indian openers will have to go back to playing with more aggressive intent from the outset as they have been doing all through this year. On a positive note, a team that has started with a win and still has so much scope to improve, is well-placed in the tournament.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.
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