India have a 3-3 record in ODIs when the top-three departed for scores less than fifty. They lost at Lord's last year against England and then in Hamilton earlier in February against New Zealand. But the last time the top-three was sent back for single-digit scores, India crashed out of World Cup semifinals (in Manchester vs New Zealand). Sunday witnessed a similar situation. The top three fell for low scores on a slowish Chepauk track and the onus was on the young and untested middle-order combination of Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant and they did not disappoint the crowd. Surviving through the tricky situation with astute caution, Pant and Iyer scored their respective half-centuries and stitched a gritty 114-run stand before setting up India for the final assault. Although the end story remained the same.
While the partnership was satisfying for the team management to get back at their critics, the rescue act was also rewarding to the eyes of the avid Indian cricket followers for it gave a peek into the future.
Both the youngsters were cautious at the start in mixing up boundaries with singles and dots after Sheldon Cottrell’s opening burst of 5-3-12-2 that saw the departure of Virat Kohli and KL Rahul in the seventh over for four and six, respectively.
The two openers were left frustrated by the two-paced nature of the pitch managing only 19 runs in the first six overs which comprise of three boundaries - two against Jason Holder and one against Cottrell who went 15 deliveries without conceding a run. The latter was clever in keeping most of his deliveries in the fuller region while mixing it up with slow cutters and good length balls. Only twice did he go marginally short, Rohit pulled the first over mid-on for a boundary, while Rahul fell to the leading edge after Cottrell cleverly took the pace off the ball which was delivered down the leg side.
Kohli got off the mark with an elegant cover drive two deliveries later before Windies brought in the short cover leaving the third man region open for the Indian skipper. Cottrell then went for another slowish ball of full length urging Kohli to cut it down to the third-man boundary, but instead dragged the ball onto the stumps.
Onus was hence on Rohit, but unfortunately, he struggled too against the pace attack playing 24.5 per cent false shots on Sunday, well high of his career average of 16.2 per cent (according to Cricviz). And Jason Holder was his chief tormentor as the all-rounder drew 32 per cent of the false shots.
After the initial trouble, Hayden Walsh was brought into the attack and Iyer managed to settle with twin boundaries against the off-spinner while Rohit too got two boundaries against him. But the introduction of Alzarri Joseph ended Rohit's struggle in the 19th over.
With Pant and Iyer now at the helm, the young pair was in for a challenge as Alzarri and Roston Chase took of Windies attack. In the first 33 deliveries in their partnership, they added just 12 runs. They did have time, courtesy to Walsh's three overs earlier that gave India 20 runs before Rohit's departure. Using the camaraderie they built during their Delhi Capitals days, Pant and Iyer tackled the slowish track with patience. The first boundary in their partnership came against Chase when he went short as Iyer cut it through backward point. Pant, who was then at five from 15, scored his first boundary in the very next over, against Alzarri with a flick through midwicket. But it wasn't a rush of boundaries that helped them shrug off the pressure, but the two just took time to understand the nature of the pitch while keeping the scoreboard ticking.
What was even impressive was Pant displaying his mature self all through the partnership. There wasn't a hint or an urge to play a rash shot. He dealt with more singles amid a few edges and misses and waited for that right ball - a slog-sweep six over deep midwicket against Chase - to find momentum. And it was roughly around this time that something very unnatural happened at Chepauk. MS Dhoni's beloved den had Pant's name echoing through the walls each time he took the crease. The crowd cheer surely worked as a morale booster as Pant kept his strike rate at run-a-ball while not going harsh at the deliveries.
Iyer, on the other hand, played the aggressor in the first half of the partnership, allowing Pant to take the time to settle in. And following that six off Chase, Iyer shifted back to being the anchor and allowed Pant to flourish. The two scored their respective fifties – Iyer’s fifth and Pant’s maiden – off successive overs before adding a total of 114 to the scoreboard.
However, before the two could enter the slog overs, Windies attack got rid of them and managed to restrict India to well below 300.
India might have lost the match, by eight wickets in Chennai, but that middle-order stand between the two youngsters after a top-order failure was surely a big positive for the management.