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Santner sends India spinning to defeat

Wisden India logo Wisden India 15-03-2016

In the most Indian of conditions, New Zealand conjured one spinning hero after another to fashion a remarkable win on Tuesday (March 15) night.

An expectedly massive crowd had wended its way to VCA Stadium in Jamtha well before the gates were opened in great expectancy, hoping to celebrate a winning start by Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team in the opening Super 10 game of the ICC World Twenty20. Instead, they left thoroughly disappointed, losing their voice halfway through the Indian chase. Led brilliantly by the left-arm spin of Mitchell Santner (4 for 11), New Zealand defended their modest 126 for 7 with tigerish resolve, skittling India for 79 to fashion a comprehensive and breathtaking 47-run victory. It was India’s lowest total in a Twenty20 International and a huge wake-up call for a team that must now win all its three remaining matches to entertain hopes of making it to the semifinal.

At the toss, Kane Williamson sprung a huge surprise when he left out Trent Boult and Tim Southee, his pace spearheads, and put all his eggs in the spinning basket. The awesomeness of that move became apparent once India set out in quest of their first T20I win against New Zealand, and were immediately rocked as first Nathan McCullum and Santner, and then Ish Sodhi (3 for 18), worked their way through the Indian order to express their thanksgiving for Williamson winning an important, and eventually decisive, toss.

It was a particularly galling defeat for one of the overwhelming tournament favourites who came into this game with 10 wins in their previous 11 games, and had given an excellent account of themselves with the ball and in the field in the first half of this match. However, not for the first time in recent memory, India were undone by decent spin on a pretty receptive surface – low, slow, dry and a little two-paced – and the manner in which they were lured to their doom wouldn’t have pleased Dhoni or the think-tank one bit. It sure didn’t the crowd, large parts of which had filtered out of the ground long before Adam Milne crashed through Ashish Nehra’s defences.

The first signs that this would be anything but a regulation chase came in the first over when McCullum defeated Shikhar Dhawan’s sweep and trapped him in front. Two overs later, Santner ripped one past the advancing Rohit Sharma and then forced Suresh Raina to pop a catch to mid-wicket and at 12 for 3, the fat was really in the fire. It wasn’t particularly edifying batting from a set of batsmen that had had enough opportunity to see just how the pitch was behaving earlier in the evening.

Virat Kohli, India’s most assured batsman, again looked in total command and could only watch on in disbelief as wickets tumbled around him, Yuvraj Singh wending his way to the hut after tamely chipping McCullum’s offspin back to the bowler. That meant, with 101 needed, Kohli was joined in the middle by his captain, the two masters of the chase having their work cut out against the turning, fizzing, stopping ball.

For no more than 15 minutes, they seemed up to the task, Dhoni headless and helmeted and then capped, getting down low to keep the ball out and Kohli bringing his wrists into play. The first hint of Sodhi’s legspin, however, induced an expansive stroke from the form player, the beautifully delivered legbreak taking the outside edge of Kohli’s intended cover-drive to land in Luke Ronchi’s gloves.

Despite Dhoni’s towering and dangerous presence, it was game over at 39 for 5. It wasn’t just because the run-rate had shot up to nearly eight an over, but also due to the fact that the lower order wasn’t equipped enough to keep the marauding Kiwi spin attack – who would have thought that? – at bay.

It was a pretty remarkable all-round performance from post-Brendon McCullum New Zealand, who read the pitch perfectly and implemented their bowling plans with unalloyed brilliance. Their batting plan had been obvious from the very first delivery, but even if they failed to execute that to perfection, they put enough on the board for their three spinners to weave their magic.

The New Zealand top order was determined to go hard at the new ball when the field restrictions were in place so that they wouldn’t leave themselves with too much to do when the ball became soft and the field opened out, but beyond the first over, it wasn’t a plan that brought them too much success until Ronchi smashed 15 off the final over, from Nehra.

Martin Guptill slammed the first ball of the match back over R Ashwin’s head and into the sight screen, but the canny offspinner had his reward almost immediately by slowing it up and getting the ball to turn ever so slightly, defeating the opener’s sweep and winning a shout for leg before. After a sighter, Colin Munro then reverse-slammed his second delivery deep into the stands over point; 13 came off the first over, and despite Guptill’s dismissal, New Zealand must have felt the start was as bright as they could have hoped for.

The domination of the bat pretty much ended after those first six balls of the match. The second over was a wicket-maiden from Nehra, who went past and under Munro’s bat before forcing him to toe-end a drive to mid-off. It meant New Zealand had to somewhat revisit their strategy because even though they batted deep, they couldn’t afford to expose their middle order to the turning ball.

It didn’t help their cause that neither Williamson nor Corey Anderson was on top of his game. Anderson started promisingly before tapering off, Williamson struggled for timing from the very first delivery against Ashwin, who bowled three of the Power Play overs, and Nehra, who didn’t concede a run until his 10th ball of the match. To make matters worse, they just didn’t have the nous or the wherewithal to deconstruct Jasprit Bumrah, the young paceman who gave nothing away in terms of width or length while executing his yorkers and slower ones to perfection.

Dhoni eked out four bonus overs of great quality from Raina’s offpsin. Raina put an end to Williamson’s tortured stay by setting up a simple stumping for Dhoni, then produced a brilliant save on his follow through and backhanded the ball when still on the ground to catch a backing-up Ross Taylor short of his ground. It was outstanding stuff that brought a raucous, completely transfixed crowd to its feet, and sent New Zealand into deeper trouble, at 61 for 4 midway through the 12th.

New Zealand didn’t find great momentum after that but still added 71 in the last 10 overs, courtesy Ronchi’s late flourish. Then, the spinners took over, and it was all over in a jiffy, really.

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