Rahul, Kohli guide India home after early scare on tricky track


India 201 for 4 (Rahul 97*, Kohli 85, Hazlewood 3-38) beat Australia 199 all out (Smith 46, Jadeja 3-28) by six wickets

The hosts and favourites for the 2023 World Cup are up and running. But as clinical as India’s six-wicket victory over Australia looks on paper, there was far more jeopardy out on the field in Chennai.

Ravindra Jadeja‘s exemplary 3 for 28 restricted Australia to 199, but the pursuit of a modest target began with a historically bad start. India were reduced to 2 for 3 – the first time in ODIs three of their top four were dismissed without scoring; Mitchell Starc removed Ishan Kishan for a first-ball duck before Josh Hazlewood‘s double-wicket maiden snared captain Rohit Sharma lbw and Shreyas Iyer, caught tamely at short cover.

But from the ruins rose Virat Kohli and KL Rahul – two of India’s “been there, done that” world-beaters. A stand of 165 turned a problematic start into a cakewalk of a finish. So much so that while Kohli fell for 85 – he was dropped on 12 – Rahul was able to manoeuvre himself into a position for an outside shot at ODI century number seven.

With 91 to his name and five left to get, a four and a six would have taken him to three figures. Alas, too sweet a connection on a lofted drive off Pat Cummins cleared the boundary sponge at extra cover, finishing the match and leaving the keeper-batter dismayed on 97 not out.

It was particularly chastening for Australia for the match to end in such one-sided circumstances. Cummins’ decision to be the first captain to win the toss and choose to bat at this World Cup looked optimistic, especially as the second innings wore on and the ball stopped talking.

Halzewood’s 3 for 38 ended up being the only plus point in the second half. But one imagines most of the post-match debrief will centre around the inability to combat the turn and nous of Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav and R Ashwin.

India’s spin amigos shared six wickets between themselves, instigating an inescapable chokehold epitomised by the 16.5 overs worth of dot balls within their collective 30. The control assumed throughout the guts of Australia’s innings was primarily through Jadeja, who was introduced in the 20th. Australia had made a steady start before an eight-over-straight spell of 3 for 38 from the Chennai Super Kings stalwart on familiar conditions demolished those foundations.

Despite losing opener Mitchell Marsh for a six-ball duck – edge found by Jasprit Bumrah, well-taken by Kohli tumbling to his left at first slip – David Warner was typically breezy, moving past 1000 ODI World Cup runs in just his 19th innings, setting a new benchmark for the feat having done so in one knock fewer than Sachin Tendulkar and AB de Villiers.

A return catch for Kuldeep’s first of two dismissals ended his stay on 41, and a stand of 69 with Steven Smith, who himself made it to 46 before losing his off stump, beaten on the outside edge and losing his off stump. It was the first of three wickets to fall in the space of 10 Jadeja deliveries.

Marnus Labuschagne was adjudged caught behind off a sweep, before the Alex Carey lasted just two deliveries before behind adjudged lbw in front of middle. Both batters took Australia’s two DRS reviews back to the dressing room.

At 119 for 5, the onus fell on the last two remaining “full-time” batters Glenn Maxwell and Cameron Green to conjure a partnership of note. Maxwell was able to strike Jadeja through extra cover for the first boundary in 73 deliveries, but an awry shot across the line to Kuldeep followed by Green’s lazy cut to backward point off Ashwin took the score from 140 for 5 to 140 for seven in the space of four balls.

Starc and Cummins were valiant in pursuit of late runs; the latter striking the first six of the innings midway through the 40th over (Kuldeep heaved over deep square leg) before the former bashed the second over the same region off Bumrah.

Starc would be the last to fall, holing out into the leg side to bring the innings to a close with three balls to go. But within four balls of the restart, the left-arm quick had Kishan departing first ball, slashing to Green a first slip.

Hazlewood followed with his double-hit in his opening over and, just like that, India’s task looked far from academic. But the fact there was only 197 to clear in 48 overs when Kohli and Rahul came together meant no undue risks needed to be taken.

And yet, India should have been 19 for 4 when a top edge from Kohli on 12 – hurried by a skiddy bouncer from Hazlewood – fell through the hands of Marsh running in from square leg after some miscommunication with Carey behind the stumps. Kohli then survived an edge past his own stumps off Cummins on 13.

Kohli was soon back into his work, supreme through midwicket for back-to-back fours off Green – the first just his second boundary in 50 deliveries. The pair exchanged strike regularly, until Rahul struck three fours – two fine of third, then a drive through cover – to take 13 off Adam Zampa’s opening over to jump-start his innings.

That the legspinner was held back until the 17th over spoke of the loss of that early movement with the two new balls under lights, dissipating Australia’s incisiveness. By then, Starc had changed his angle to over the wicket to both right-handers, hoping to elicit either movement or a mistake off the straight.

Kohli would win the race to the half-century, whipping a Cummins bumper off his nose to reach fifty for the 114th time in ODIs, off 75 balls. Soon after the century stand was reached, Rahul square drove his 72nd delivery for a 16th fifty in the format. ODI hundred number 48 looked odds on for Kohli, only to fall 15 short when pulling Hazlewood straight to Labuschagne at midwicket. His walk-off suggested a desire to take the side home, but with 33 required off 74, the finish line was in full view.

And so came the sprint finish. Pandya charged Hazlewood to muller him over wide long off for India’s first six of the tournament. Rahul then followed with the second in the next over, planting Maxwell into the stands down the ground.

Perhaps a century for Rahul would have been the neatest of bows on a professional opening win. As far as consolations go, sizeable red ink and victory by 52 deliveries should more than make up for it.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo



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