Indian Bowlers Need to Find the Killer Instinct to Choke Out Opposition After Terrific Starts

On the face of it, India may have posted a comfortable eight-wicket win over South Africa to begin their last leg of preparations before the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup in a grand fashion in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday.

Having restricted South Africa to 106 for 8, contrasting half-centuries by opener KL Rahul and the attacking Suryakumar Yadav saw India through with 20 deliveries to spare. On a pitch that was later described as “tricky” and something that South Africa did not expect to play the way it did, and which Rahul said as the “toughest pitch” he played on, managing to score an unbeaten 51 in 56 deliveries, India had the first half of the Proteas batting line-up for just nine runs in just two-and-a-half overs.

This 9 for 5 in 2.3 overs is the fastest in terms of the number of overs that any side has had half its batters back in the pavilion, courtesy of some incisive spell of swing bowling by comeback men Deepak Chahar and Arshdeep Singh, and aided by South African batsmen’s lack of application in terms of feet movement and misjudging the lengths of the deliveries.

It did not seem such a dicey pitch that a team could be restricted to such a low score even before the halfway stage of the Power Play.

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Chahar and Singh went on to pick up a combined five for 56 with the left-armer from Punjab going on to earn his first man of the match award in 12 T20Is. No doubt Singh has been a major find for India in recent times and he has only been getting better with every game that he plays.

Both coming back into the Indian team after missing the three-match T20I series against Australia that Rohit Sharma’s side clinched 2-1 after being 0-1 down, they got down to business straight away. For them to have South Africa reeling at nine for five and eventually to a Power Play score of 30 for five and finally containing them to 106 for eight is a brilliant bowling performance by the Indians, no doubt. That too without the first-choice bowlers Jasprit Bumrah, off-colour Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Yuzvendra Chahal.

While the opening game against South Africa may be a morale-boosting win for Rohit Sharma and Co. as they go into the World Cup hoping to cover all their bases, smoothening some rough edges, there is one major area for concern – that of not being able to wipe out the opposition after having them pushed to the wall with nowhere to go.

Ideally, you would have expected the Indian bowlers to bowl out South Africa for a total of under 50 or even 80 from nine for five or 42 for six and 68 for seven.

It has been Indian bowlers’ failure to choke the opposition after having them on the mat that could prove detrimental in their efforts to win bigger matches, say a World Cup knockout game or even the final.

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How often, over the years and across formats, have we seen the Indian bowlers not being able to pick the final few wickets and allowing the opposition tail to wag, bailing their teams out of a no-win situation to at least give them a chance for a fightback? That India have gone on to win some of those is a different matter altogether.

Prior to Wednesday, it happened as recently as the Asia Cup in Dubai against Afghanistan. Following a sensational opening spell by Bhuvneshwar, India had Afghanistan down to 21 for five in Power Play and 54 for seven but failed to finish off the opposition. The Afghanistan tail led by Mujeeb ur Rahman wagged to add 57 runs in the last 6.5 overs to finish at 111/8. The end total of Afghanistan did not matter as India were brilliantly guided to 212 for two, courtesy of Virat Kohli’s much-awaited international century number 71.

On Wednesday, the South African lower order were led by Wayne Parnell and finished off by Keshav Maharaj, the former posting his second-highest T20I score and the latter, his highest in only five innings. Such has been India’s inability to not go on to finish things off and allow the rival teams to put on a few extra runs the joke has been that any bowler who wants to improve his batting averages has to just come and play against India.

While not taking away credit from the opposition lower order to fight it out and make it tough for the Indian bowlers; while also understanding the fact that the conditions are not the same as initially and get better to bat on as the match progresses; while also taking into account that the bowlers who have done the initial damage may have run out of their quota of overs or are preserved for the death overs by which time crucial runs are already added, India should find a way sooner to address this issue.

Ravichandran Ashwin, who has not been getting matches frequently and who doesn’t seem to be the first-choice spinner for T20Is, was as miserable as one can get, going for 4-1-8-0 on Wednesday. He may not have taken wickets but did well to tie down the South African lower order. With pressure mounting on the South Africans, they had no choice but to go for runs, damaging the end figures of Singh (3/32) including 17 off his last over (19th of the innings) while taking their total upwards of 100.

In the case of Wednesday or even in Dubai against Afghanistan earlier this month, which, though was all about Kohli and his first international century in nearly 146 weeks, India ought to have bundled the opposition cheaply and clinched the issue much earlier rather than allowing them to run away with some invaluable runs. Not that the runs that the lower order posted made any difference in the end result – India winning by 101 runs in Dubai and by eight wickets in Thiruvananthapuram.

But, giving away such runs could come to bite the Indian team hard, say in a World Cup final. The Indian bowlers should look at wiping off the lower order in the same vein as they do the top order. Even the bowlers who gave away almost next to nothing while picking up initial wickets went for runs in their later spells.

For Arshdeep, who was on a hat-trick while taking three wickets in his first over, to finish with three for 32 was something that one would not have fathomed. Having observed Arshdeep bowling through IPL and now in international cricket, he is one who is constantly improving.

A recent analysis in showed how crucial Arshdeep is in India’s T20 scheme of things. Rising to prominence with his death bowling in the IPL, Arshdeep’s yorkers are among the best in the business. The analysis said that Arshdeep has given away only 6.7 runs per over after sending down a combined 14.1 overs at the death, the best among Test-playing countries with a 50-ball cut off. Fellow T20 World Cup squad member Harshal Patel, whom India is banking on in Australia, has gone for 11.45 runs per over in the final overs in all T20s this year.

It is time the Indian think-tank addressed this issue and the bowlers made most of the initial breakthroughs and gave little batting time for the opposition tail. Lest a World Cup trophy may just slip away from India’s hands.

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