Rohit, Rahul ruin Malinga’s World Cup farewell

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06 Jul 2019 | 05:22 PM
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Prem Panicker

Rohit, Rahul ruin Malinga’s World Cup farewell

India continued their domination over Sri Lanka with a comprehensive victory

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Angelo Mathews turned the clock back with a batting display that gave Sri Lanka a glimmer of hope. And then KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma gave themselves an extended net session, and that was that. Some talking points from a one-sided snooze-fest:

The Sri Lankan batting camel: “A camel,” said Alex Issigonis, designer of the British Motors’ iconic Mini, “is a horse designed by a committee.”

He could with perfect justification have said the same of cricket teams in the modern era, where the coaching staff, the collective noun for which is “think tank”, often outnumbers the playing squad.

Consider the Sri Lankan side, playing the ninth game of the tournament today. Lahiru Thirimanne opened for the team in the first game against New Zealand, batted three in the next two games, and now finds himself at number 7. Kusal Mendis has batted four, then opened, and slipped back to four here. Dananjaya d’Silva has batted five and is now a lower order batsman.

Speaking to cricket.com at our launch event, former Sri Lankan great Mahela Jayawardene made the point that top teams figure out their best combinations at least a year ahead of a major tournament, then spend the lead-up twelve months bedding the players down in their respective slots. The team he once played for and led with distinction hasn’t been listening; in its final game of the tournament, it still seems to be searching for a viable combination.

Nothing illustrates the Lankan confusion as much as the case of Avishka Fernando. The 21-year-old opened for the Lankans in a lead-up game against Scotland in Edinburg and scored 74 off 78 – and never found a place in Sri Lanka’s first five games (two of which were rained out). His scores since – 49 against England, 30 against South Africa and 104 against the West Indies – highlighted the folly of benching him; the class he shows at the crease, the minimalist movement, the fast-twitch muscles that put him in perfect position off either foot, and the smoothness of his strokes all around the wicket merely rub it in.

Against Bumrah in the opening powerplay, while his supposed betters were struggling to put bat on ball, Avishka played with fluid ease; all three fours conceded by the Indian quick was to the Lankan youngster. Particularly eye-catching was a passage of play where Bumrah, then in his 5th over, was square driven with an ease that reminded you of Aravinda d’Silva at his best; when Bumrah followed up with a quick bouncer, the batsman launched a contemptuous pull to get a second successive four off a bowler who thinks he is doing badly if you score one four off him in an entire innings.

When looking at Sri Lanka’s serial implosions – including the one in this game – it is worth keeping this in mind: An unsettled lineup does not conduce to settled cricket.

Good news bad news: Half the wordage of every report on a match featuring India gets devoted to the prodigious Jasprit Bumrah, so no more of him. Except to say that while Bhuvaneshwar Kumar was being carted around the park from one end (his first four overs went for 35), Bumrah at the other end, without seeming to do anything out of the ordinary, returned figures of 3-2-5-1 before Avishka took 9 off his fourth over.

Thanks to Bhuvi’s unexpected largesse – an outcome of his bowling both sides of the wicket on a used pitch that offered him little and prompted him to try too many things too early – India gave away 52 in the first powerplay, the most it has conceded thus far in the tournament.

The next block of ten overs, 11-20, produced just 32 for the loss of two wickets – and the credit owes to two bowlers, one a quick learner, the other a bench-warmer finally getting a go. Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja teamed up in the 9th and 10th overs, and at the end of 15 overs had identical figures of 3-0-6-1.

The way they took an early wicket each and, in the process, pegged Lanka right back is a primer about their respective skills. Jadeja in his first over started by bowling fast and quick at an almost blockhole length. After three of those, he flighted one up above Kusal Mendis’ eyeline and gave it a rip. The batsman came down the track, was beaten in his attempt to get to the pitch, and saw the ball turn past his bat for MS Dhoni to pull off a stumping. That sequence is typical of Jadeja, Indian cricket’s street-smart hustler.

Pandya, for his part, has until this tournament been your standard one-note fifth bowler, prone to hitting the deck hard at the maximum pace he is capable of. Through this World Cup though, Pandya has developed an entire armory of variations. He still bowls his favorite back of length, but varies pace and angle with perfect control.

To Avishka, who was batting with ominous fluency, he produced an off-spinner wrapped up in a bouncer’s disguise. Avishka looked to play the ramp over the keeper; the “spin” on the ball kept following him and found the edge close to the shoulder of the bat – it was deception at his best; atypical of the in-your-face Pandya even six months ago, but now almost a trademark.

Ageless Angelo: In Sri Lanka’s previous game, Nicholas Pooran was making a mockery of a chase of 339. The islanders had, in a desperate bid to peg the Windies back, used up their best bowlers. After 47, the West Indies needed 31 off 18 with Pooran in cruise control, and no regular bowler to turn to.

Angelo Mathews put his hand up; with his first ball – not just of the over, the first ball he had bowled, either in anger or in the nets, in close to a year – he nicked Pooran off and for all practical purposes, torpedoed the chase.

Here, he walked out in the 11th over, with Lanka on 53/3. Six balls later he watched Avishka Fernando walk back. And then the 32-year-old who, before this tournament, had last played in September 2018 put his hand up and took over. With the composure of someone who has seen it all before, he steadied the innings, shrugged off the almost static run rate, sussed out that an Indian attack with only five bowlers would offer plenty of opportunities, and played the sort of innings that had in his heyday made him a premier all-rounder.

He figured in a rescue partnership of 124 off 157 with Lahiru Thirimanne, and then accelerated through a 74-run stand with Dananjaya d’Silva (64 balls) that took Sri Lanka to 253 in the 48th over before falling to the imperative of going for broke. In the process, he showed up the problems with a five-man attack, pouncing on Bhuvi each time the off-color seamer was brought back, smacking the otherwise excellent Jadeja downtown for two sixes, and almost single-handedly ensuring that Lanka’s last outing did not end in the abject humiliation that seemed possible when the board read 55/4 in the 12th over.

Who is India’s Hans Brinker?: American author Mary Mapes Dodge introduced us to the story of the boy who put his finger in a leaky dike and saved a town from being flooded. The Indian bowling has lately sprung a leak; the problem appears to be finding a boy whose finger fits in the hole.

Mohammed Shami takes wickets in clusters but, at the death, he also gives away runs in job lots. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, even at his worst as he was here, is relatively economical at the death (his three overs, in two spells, in the final ten over phase cost just 19 runs – which is approximately what Shami gives away in a single over). But then Bhuvi, unless there is quantifiable seam movement off the wicket, goes traveling in the early overs and during the middle of the innings. What to do now?

Unless South Africa upstages Australia in its final league game, now on as I write this, India will end up playing England in Birmingham, where the hosts had ended India’s unbeaten run on June 30, triggering a Virat Kohli outburst about the short boundary on one side. The talking point of that game was that the spin twins, Chahal and Kuldeep, had gone for 160 runs in 20 overs, with the former returning his worst ever ODI figures.

Assume an encore, India has a logistical issue. It cannot go into a knock-out – particularly against a strong batting side -- with just five bowlers. Equally, given the inordinate time it has taken the side to figure out its middle order, it needs some depth to its batting. Put all that together, and the best lineup for the semis reads: KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, Ravi Jadeja, MS Dhoni, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Kuldeep Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah.

Not Chahal, because his stock ball is the flighted delivery on a fourth/fifth stump line – just right for the slog sweep to the short boundary. A coda: If they use the center wicket, as is likely, the boundaries will be more even than in the previous game.

And Jadeja, because of his ability to button down one end against almost any batsman in any mood; plus, he is a left-hander in the middle order, forcing bowlers in defensive mode to keep changing lines.

Adios, Mali: Lasith Malinga has played 127 matches for the Mumbai Indians in the IPL, taking 179 wickets; his last, with the penultimate ball of the match, sealed a win for the Mumbai franchise in the 2019 edition.

Through his stint, he has discussed his bowling strategies for every batsman, in every situation and on every type of pitch, with Rohit Sharma who led the franchise from 2013 onwards. So how, in the twilight of your career, do you bowl to someone who knows your game as well as you know it yourself?

In his second over, Malinga gave width, twice in three balls, to KL Rahul and got punished. He finally found what he was looking for – late inswing from a fourth stump line onto the batsman’s pads. Only, the batsman was Rohit Sharma; the outcome, a dismissive flick through midwicket for four.

In his next over, Rohit first eased Malinga from a fourth stump line to the third man boundary, then clipped an attempted yorker through midwicket off the very next ball. Malinga 3-0-26-0 and out of the attack – not the sort of script fabulists would have written for the last Cup game of this most extraordinary cricketer who, sadly, failed to land even one of the toe-crushing yorkers that had elevated him to legendary status.

Just when it seemed that Mali would walk away into the sunset without a single wicket to his name, he produced an attempted bouncer than did not bounce; Rahul, ducking under it, ran it off the face of the bat, having earlier in the over dismissively stroked him for boundaries over mid off, first, and then mid on.

The return of the “hitman”: You could argue that “return” is misapplied when referring to a batsman who had already clocked up four centuries in this tournament before this game – and who, in this game, used his trademark front foot pull to complete a World Cup-record fifth century (92 balls, 14 fours, two sixes) to a standing ovation from a sell-out crowd. And you would be half-right.

The point worth noting is the change, in the last couple of games, in Rohit’s batting. Early in the tournament, the opener was prone to starting slow in the powerplay, soaking up dot balls and pressure in equal measure before opening out well into the middle overs.

With the English weather changing, with sunny conditions baking pitches hard, Rohit has begun getting off the blocks in a hurry; here, he was run-a-ball from the outset; he powered India’s excellent powerplay score of 59/0 (Rohit 31/25); his 50 came off 48 deliveries and when Lanka, going into this game without a regular spinner, brought on Dananjaya d’Silva, Rohit launched him for two typically effortless sixes, over long on and then back over the bowler’s head. (Later in the piece, when the part time off spinner was brought back, Rahul launched him for two fours and a six.)

If Rohit flourished in Shikhar Dhawan’s slipstream earlier in the competition, he now enables KL Rahul to bat at his own pace. One measure: The 100 of the partnership came off 109 balls; of these, Rohit contributed 61 off 53 and Rahul, 38 off 56. The two now complement each other; their 189 run opening partnership, which ended when Rohit chipped Kasun Rajitha tamely to mid off in the first ball of the 31st over, is the highest for the wicket by any team in this competition.

Rahul, who marked his ODI debut with a century (against Zimbabwe, June 2016), notched only the second hundred of his career here, off 109 deliveries, just to add to the ‘landmarks’ list.

There is only one identifiable concern with Rohit’s batting. Before this game, he had scored 544 runs in this edition of the Cup. Five catches, and one clear run out opportunity, were missed off him; 369 of his runs have come after these let offs. Commentators say it takes a good batsman to capitalize on a life, and that’s fair – but the point remains that he has consistently shown distinct vulnerabilities early on in his innings, and good fielding sides – of the kind you come up against in the knock-outs – are less likely to be generous.

Today, for the record, he didn’t need largesse, either from fielders or bowlers – he was in the zone and when that happens, you might as well put your team jersey on a bowling machine and go home. Thanks to Rohit, and Rahul’s support act, that is what the Lankans are doing – going home, with just three wins from seven completed games to show for their labors.

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