India vs South Africa: Wrong Result, But India Showed Right Intent by Batting First in Bangalore
How many remember the first of three T20Is between India and Sri Lanka at Pune in 2016? India were bowled out for 101, before Sri Lanka won fairly easily.
India's batting performance against South Africa in the third T20I in Bangalore wasn't too dissimilar, although not as bad. India managed only 134 for 9 batting first, with South Africa going on to win comfortably by nine wickets.
In the larger scheme of things, results in bilaterals hardly matter. Not many remember the details of, or even the result of, that game against Sri Lanka in Pune. A few years or even months down the line, not many will remember this result against South Africa.
India understood that, taking bold decisions even if that meant risking the game. The series was in the line, but short term goals weren't as important as long term preparation.
Thus India opted to bat first, although no team had done it at M Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore since 2017. Why would anyone do that, knowing how difficult it is to defend totals at the venue. Add to it the possibility of rain, and it was in all counts a surprising decision by Virat Kohli. But it was also a logical decision, as India's eyes were not just on this trophy, but also the T20 World Cup next year.
Coming into the game, India had lost 5 of their last 11 T20Is batting first. It was clearly an area to work on.
It was all the more important given India's new approach to T20Is, that of batting deep. They had to test how far they can go; the result wasn't ideal, but the thinking was.
India's approach early on showed exactly that. Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli have been crying for freedom as the team has become too dependent on them, and they got it with such a long batting line up. It showed in their batting too, Rohit and Dhawan threw their bats at most balls in both the games. Rohit wasn't successful, while Dhawan tasted marginal success with that approach. Kohli too fell in similar attacking fashion, caught in the deep.
By the time the last of the top three left, India were 68 for 3 in the ninth over. Not an ideal situation from a match perspective, but the best India could have asked for in terms of long-term preparations. India would have learned little had Kohli or Dhawan or Rohit smashed big runs. Here, their middle order had an opportunity to do the job themselves without the help of the seniors.
Unfortunately for India, the middle order didn't take up the chance. Rishabh Pant seemed weight down, his first 17 balls yielded only 12 runs - was it the situation or the pressure from spotlight on his form? Shreyas Iyer too seemed in no rhythm in his brief stay before being stumped.
India's biggest worries, as cliched as it sounds, will be around these positions. Pant has to figure out a way to counter the challenges he's facing, and they're multifold. The biggest challenge is on his approach, but the mental side of dealing with challenges from outside should not be understated too. He has the backing of the team management for now, but a few more failures will make that tougher. The chief selector MSK Prasad has already said they have back-ups for Pant across formats, and his place is not guaranteed by any means.
India will also have to decide on Iyer's position - is he the ideal batsman for No. 5? Switching positions with Pant seems, at least on paper, a better deal for both batsmen especially given Iyer isn't known for big strike rates. His success in IPL has been in the top order, and No. 5 is slightly lower comparatively.
A smaller worry will be the form of the openers. Rohit and Dhawan have not been at their best for a while, although Rohit did get a half-century in West Indies and Dhawan got a couple of decent knocks in this series. KL Rahul is waiting in the wings.
Interestingly, Kohli said the decision to bat first was 'exactly what they wanted to do' despite the loss. He also said India would follow the same template leading to the T20 World Cup, explaining chasing in the format isn't as difficult as batting first.
The game might be forgotten in the long run, but India could eventually benefit by the decisions they took here.