It seems absurd to think now that India were deeply reluctant travellers to the first World Twenty20 back in 2007. They arrived in South Africa as sceptics, they found they enjoyed it, they won the thing in a pulsating climax and cricket was changed for ever.
For most of those three weeks in South Africa, MS Dhoni, their captain then and now, was engagingly unconcerned. He was not quite treating the whole exercise as a joke but nor was he treating it entirely seriously.
But when Misbah-ul-Haq’s audacious overhead scoop in the final ended in the hands of S Sreesanth at fine leg, India had won an engrossing and exciting match by five runs. We knew from that moment that Twenty20 was here to stay and India, their fans at home exultant, led the charge.
Administrators until then had been sniffy about the format because they were happy with the status quo. The success of the Indian Premier League, whose establishment had been announced a few days before India went to South Africa, was suddenly guaranteed.
That was a moment quite as seminal as India’s World Cup win in 1983, which would make one-day cricket king and went a long way to securing the country’s eventual control of the game.
In the years since, Twenty20 has become the format of choice and, when India open the second, business stage of the sixth World Twenty20 in Nagpur today with a match against New Zealand, they do so as the overwhelming favourites.
Only once reaching the final since their famous victory in Johannesburg, they have developed a team which is as formidable as it is admirable. Of the 16 matches since they went down by six wickets to Sri Lanka in Mirpur two years ago, they have lost five but only once in the last 11 matches.
If Virat Kohli is their premier batsman with a scoring rate of 126 per hundred balls and a quantity of runs to match – 504 in 11 innings – he has plenty of support. The likes of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Suresh Raina are all classy operators who know precisely what the demands of a match are at any given moment.
Kohli’s consistent form is remarkable, particularly given the volatile nature of the format. He was player of the tournament at the last World T20, where his 77 from 58 balls was not quite enough to see India home, and has scored five fifties in his last 11 innings. He does it all without resorting to the fancy dan shots attempted of most of his peers.
“I used to think too much about T20, saying maybe I don’t have the kind of shots that other people have, so I used to try a lot more,” he said in Nagpur yesterday. “I have come to terms with that and now I just go and play on instinct.
“I try to hit the ball in the gaps and get fours rather than sixes, which are probably high-risk shots. If you are scoring at a strike rate of 160, it doesn’t matter whether you hit a four or a six or make it all in ones and twos.”
India’s bowling in home conditions will be a handful. Underpinned by the vastly intelligent off-spin of Ravi Ashwin, who goes at barely six runs an over, the support spinners bring an air of unmatchable confidence at home.
India take an average – or more than – seven wickets in each T20 innings and have been conceding in the past two years 6.91 runs an over, fewer than all 19 teams playing official T20 internationals except Nepal, the Netherlands and Papua New Guinea, who play their matches in a somewhat different environment. Less than half the runs they conceded are in boundaries, better than all those who could be classed as their main rivals. Simply put, they get what T20 is all about.
This has been brought about largely by their exposure to the Indian Premier League but at the centre of it all, seemingly for ever, has been Dhoni. He turned up in South Africa as a copper-bottomed star but without apparently knowing much of what Twenty20 was about. By the time Yuvraj Singh hit Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over one night in Durban, they knew what it was about all right.
Despite his occasionally gnomic ramblings in front of the press, which presumably mask an inherent boredom with the process after all these years in charge. Dhoni retains an extraordinary enthusiasm for playing. He also remains a wholly daunting prospect as a middle order batsman who comes to crease with his foot already on the throttle. In this month’s Asia Cup in which India swept all before them, he finished off the final with a dismissive 20 runs from six balls.
As it happens, India have never beaten New Zealand in a T20 match at four times of asking, which included the last world tourney. That could change today.
Across to the west, in Bombay, England finished their preparations yesterday with victory in a slightly odd match against the Mumbai Cricket Association. Odd because the opposition included the other four members of the England squad who were not in the selected XI.
It meant that the left arm swing bowler, David Willey, took a late hat-trick against his team-mates – Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Chris Jordan which enhanced his claims to a spot as death bowler in the tournament proper.
England, who begin their campaign tomorrow against the West Indies, won by 14 runs with Root making the highest score of 48 in a total of 177-8.
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