India vs South Africa: After shuffle, a perfect hand

Captain Kohli keeps South Africans guessing with his ever-changing plans, flawless batting.

From the 7th to 13th over, Ravindra Jadeja was a constant from the City End. There’s nothing unusual about it, the team’s lead spinner plugging away in the middle overs, except that it was an anomaly in that he was the only bowler who exhausted his quota at one stretch. No other bowler, in India’s one-sided seven-wicket win over South Africa in the second T20I in Mohali, had this luxury.

Take for instance off-spinner Washington Sundar, his three overs were spread over three different spells—the first, fifth, 16th. Or pacer Navdeep Saini, who finished his quota of four overs in as many bursts—third, 12th, 17th and 20th. It’s the new rhyme of T20 cricket.

But rather perceiving this as a sign of restless or reactive captaincy, it’s the way modern-day T20-captaincy functions, wherein the new template is not having a template at all, where uncertainty is the sole certainty. So some of the ploys and strategies that would be ridiculed in other formats would turn out to be rewarding. Like shuffling the bowlers around—tearing the age-old norms of bowlers settling into a rhythm and working out batsmen apart. There’s no time for elaborate set-ups or incremental planning in this format.

So the thinking cannot be conventionally linear, it needs to be rather zig-zag. Instead, a bowler, how much ever good he is, gets at the most a two-over tilt, even if he had put in a commendable shift.

It’s not so much about his efficiency as his overall utility. From a captain’s perspective, it’s about micro-managing his bowlers, two ensure that his bowlers don’t get predictable—the revered tenet of bowlers settling into rhythm seems an outrageous thought—so that the batsmen could size them up and plot the big strokes. It unsettles the batsmen to such an extent that it muddles them as much as it frustrates them.

So, to throw an example from several examples, when the South African openers were hatching plots of plundering Sundar’s innocuous, low-flying off-breaks, they had to negotiate with Saini’s pace and lift. From 90kmph, they’re are suddenly facing someone at 145 kmphs. From dipping balls on the toes, they’re lining up for those that are rearing towards their upper body.

It would take them at least two balls to get a measure of him. And Saini almost nailed Quinton de Kock with his first ball, only that the thick edge flew over the vacant third slip. He smacked him for a brace of boundaries subsequently and was immediately hauled up from the attack.

A conventional formula

Now, in a conventional formula, Saini could have been given another over, so as to not appear kneejerk in decision-making. But T20 cricket moves so rapidly that a team falls behind in the blink of an eye, or even less. A captain can’t let the match drift. So jogs in Sundar for his second one-over spell. He does a tremendous job, piles on five dot balls and has the rampaging de Kock in strife. But phew, Jadeja replaces him while Hardik Pandya comes in for Deepak Chahar. So, in effect, the first eight overs were bowled by five different bowlers. And five markedly different bowlers—and in this diversity lies the versatility of India’s bowling line-up.

The sheer array of skill is staggering, even without a slew of regulars like Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. Literally, the bowling firm that strangled and suffocated South Africa’s batsmen, was second-string, though most sides in the world would have happily gobbled up most of them, especially Chahar, who continues to impress, and Jadeja.

From a one-dimensional swing-bowler, Chahar has evolved into multi-skilled exponent of slower balls, both the cutter and knuckle varieties.

The latter accounted for Temba Bavuma — so adeptly disguised was it that Bavuma utterly misread it. Saini, on the other hand, is robust and hurries batsmen with pace. While he is not yet tormenting T20 bowler, he has added more variations like the slower bouncer. Hardik too likes to pound the deck, but he alters his length, pace and angle more than Saini. Like the pacers, the spinners too are chalk and cheese, each unique in his own means and methods.

Sundar is a mirror-image of what Jadeja was when he first emerged, someone who darts the ball flat and fast at the batsmen, someone who hardly gives width or length with almost every other delivery landing on legs. Since he’s brisk, he’s difficult to play the sweep shot, both the orthodox and the cheeky ones.

Jadeja, meanwhile, is so evolved that he’s masterly in changing pace, angles, trajectory and release points. But Krunal Pandya is different — he is almost an off-spinner who bowls left-handed. Most of his deliveries break into the right-handed batsmen, the trajectory alternates between flat and flatter, making him incredibly difficult to get underneath for the big slogs down the ground. His only over cost only seven runs, but Kohli took him out. Not merely out of luxury, but to not get all too predictable.

It’s this sheer variety of skills that gives Kohli the license to shuffle his bowlers around and make his bowling attack, even his second-string one, look so menacing. Even his counterpart de Kock tried changing his bowlers around, but will little rewards as his bowlers were not as different as Kohli’s.

So five bowlers featuring in the first eight overs was not an anomaly. Rather, Jadeja bowling four overs, on the trot was, reflective of the rapidly changing colours of the T20 beast. Rather, it’s the new rhyme of T20 cricket. And it worked beautifully in Mohali.

Brief scores: South Africa 149/5 in 20 overs (Quinton de Kock 52 in 37 balls with 8×4, Temba Bavuma 49 in 43 balls with 3×4 & 1×6; Deepak Chahar 2/22) lost to India 151 for 3 in 19 overs (Virat Kohli 72 not out in 52 balls with 4×4 & 3×6, Shikhar Dhawan 40 in 31 balls with 4×4 & 1×6) by 7 wickets.

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