Funny, isn’t it, how a team can go from looking pedestrian to dominating after just one match? Such is cricket, I suppose, in these crammed days leading up to the 2023 ODI World Cup. Where two matches ago it could be argued that the Indian cricket team was saved by rain in Pallekele, after drubbing the No 1 ranked team in ODIs by 228 runs – a record for India vs Pakistan – to pocket two points in their Asia Cup Super Fours match in Colombo this same outfit looked a tremendous one.
In racking up 356 for the loss of just two wickets, and then limiting Pakistan to 128 in 32 overs, Rohit Sharma’s team, to this writer, looked the most serious about its ODI cricket since March when it went into a three-match series versus Australia with as close to a first-choice 11 as possible. Because when India get Rohit, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli and KL Rahul batting like they did across two days of this match – due to rain – and then the bowlers unite to take wickets consistently, this team looks like genuine World Cup semi-finalists.
Of course, teams like Australia, England and New Zealand will offer India sterner tests. But to hit back in this manner against Pakistan was India’s way of underlining that they cannot be written off. Before this match, all India had to show for in terms of batting form in the Asia Cup was four batsmen: from the washout with Pakistan, Hardik Pandya and Ishan Kishan, and from the ten-wicket win over Nepal, Rohit and Gill.
That Rohit and Gill channeled the confidence from that win into day one of the two-day match with Pakistan was obvious. Gill started the fightback by hitting six fours in two overs from Shaheen Shah Afridi’s, India’s nemesis in Pallekele, and the manner in which Rohit clubbed three sixes of Shadab Khan was ominous. After an opening stand of 121 inside 17 overs, the dismissals of Rohit and Gill set India back momentarily before the rain, but on the reserve day the way in which Rahul and Kohli set themselves for stirring centuries was remarkable.
Remember, Rahul was playing his first match in four months. He was not even supposed to play this match. Shreyas Iyer’s unfortunate back spasm not long before the toss opened up a spot for Rahul., and batting at No 4 he calmly collected his sixth ODI century. There have seldom been such fluent and emphatic returns from injury. Rahul started the fightback before Kohli looked good, ran hard and fast, and his back-foot play against spin and pace was sharp. Rahul already owned very good ODI stats at No 5 in the past two years; this century from one spot higher had underscored his status in this team, and the fact that India swapped him as wicketkeeper during Pakistan’s limp chase was a strong statement.
Kohli was 8 off 16 balls when rain ruined play on Sunday, and as his innings progressed he grew in confidence. Inside edges and outer edges turned into drives and pulls. Once Kohli had his fifty, the shows increased in fluency and his 47th ODI hundred – as well as 13,000 runs – was a formality thereon. Yes, Haris Rauf did not take the field and Naseem Shah looked ragged, but for Kohli and Rahul to put on a double-century stand in such a manner was emphatic. Babar Azam will surely rue his decision to field in this match.
The other gain was Jasprit Bumrah playing his first ODI in over a year and bowling five overs. He was accurate and pacy, getting Imam-ul-Haq in an opening spell of 5-1-18-1 and fans of this team must have taken plenty of heart from how at ease Bumrah looked.
Then there was the peach of a delivery that Pandya delivered to the No 1 batsman in ODIs, Babar, which cut back in and hit the stumps. And when Shardul Thakur got the ball and had Mohammad Rizwan nicking off to Rahul immediately, you knew this was one-way traffic. By this stage, all India’s premier white-ball bowler Kuldeep Yadav had to do was toss the ball up on the stumps and get some turn. The wickets came thick and fast for Kuldeep, who laughed his way off the field with figures of 5/25 in eight overs.
As I wrote in the preview for this match, India needed a win like this to instill some momentum in not just their Asia Cup campaign – which continues with a match against Sri Lanka today – but also for the World Cup. Perhaps the tide has changed.