On a day when Rohit Sharma began his stint as India's full-time T20I captain, his most telling impact on the game perhaps came half an hour before a ball was delivered. Without taking anything away from his sumptuous 36-ball 48 – the crunch of his bat on ball reverberated through the Sawai Mansingh Stadium on many occasions—he got the flick of the coin right at the toss and chose to bowl. More importantly, India were doing what they prefer in limited-overs games: chase down a target. India had been at the wrong end of the toss in key games against Pakistan and New Zealand in the T20 World Cup and were asked to set a target. They floundered on both occasions, a setback they could not recover from.
As was apparent during the World Cup, the balance is clearly skewed towards the team batting second in the subcontinent. Dew is a big factor, but don't discount the advantage that comes with knowing exactly how to approach a chase.
It made the difference for India on Wednesday. Gunning down 165 for victory, India reached the target with two balls to spare, taking a 1-0 lead in the three-match series. Having looked on course for most of the chase after the blazing knocks of Suryakumar Yadav (62) and Sharma, victory should have been achieved with far more comfort. Needing 21 off the final three overs, the 18th and 19th overs yielded just 11 runs with Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant in the middle. Pant, though, ensured, with a little help from Venkatesh Iyer in the final over, that there was no major hiccup to the start of a new tenure under Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid.
It was Sharma and KL Rahul who set the tempo for the chase, motoring to 50/0 in five overs. They punished Tim Southee and Trent Boult whenever they erred in length. If it was short on their body, they pulled with disdain. If it was outside off, they cut with conviction.
While Rahul was dismissed in the sixth over after miscuing a pull against Mitchell Santner, there was no let-up from the batters. The stylish Suryakumar Yadav joined his senior from Mumbai and continued exerting pressure on the Kiwi bowlers.
Sharma spoke on Tuesday about the need for the batters to express themselves without restraint and the fear of failure leading up to next year's T20 World Cup in Australia. Wednesday was a solid beginning in that regard.
Yadav's nonchalant flicks and daring drives continued even after Sharma was out. He also had a slice of good fortune when he was dropped on 57 by Boult at fine leg, but he had done most of the damage by then. Boult redeemed himself partially with Yadav's wicket in the next over when the batter went for an ambitious sweep through fine-leg. It was never going to be enough though.
The Indian bowlers, too, played their parts. They seemed set to concede a total in excess of 180 when Martin Guptill and Mark Chapman were stitching together a 109-run partnership (77 balls) for the second wicket earlier in the evening. But they limited the damage towards the end.
The NZ duo started steadily but made up for it in the latter half of their innings. Guptill hit 70 off 42 balls while Chapman (63 off 50 balls) registered his first half-century for the Black Caps. They came together in the very first over after Bhuvneshwar Kumar handed India the perfect start. He sent back the in-form Daryl Mitchell off the third ball of the innings with a trademark set-up. The 31-year-old began proceedings with two away-going deliveries to Guptill before sneaking the ball through the gap between Mitchell's bat and pad with a booming inswinger. It reinforced the importance of swing in Bhuvneshwar's scheme of things. And when there isn't any, like in the World Cup, he doesn't look anywhere near as effective these days.
The early breakthrough brought an inexperienced Chapman to the crease. The 27-year-old was featuring in his 31st T20I game, but 19 of those games have come for Hong Kong—his country of birth. He made the switch to NZ only in 2018 owing to his father's roots and remains largely untested at the highest level.
Bhuvneshwar could have had his second wicket in the third over, having induced Chapman's outside edge with one that swung away from the left-hander. But the slip had just been removed, offering Chapman a reprieve as the ball went past a diving Rishabh Pant.
While Chapman hogged most of the early strike, he wasn't necessarily timing the ball that well. It was only in the sixth over that he began finding his groove, hitting Deepak Chahar for a four and six and taking NZ to 41/1 at the end of powerplay.
The next four overs were relatively quiet with the spin duo of R Ashwin and Axar Patel on. At 65/1 in 10 overs, Guptill—who had ambled to a run-a-ball 19—knew they couldn't delay the switching of gears any longer. And he responded by treating Mohammed Siraj with disdain. The balls were in the slot alright, but Guptill still had to capitalise. He did so with a six and a four through the V.
Suddenly, the runs started flowing from both ends with ease. Dew was also starting to take hold perhaps. What else can explain Axar—otherwise possessing immaculate control—delivering a knee-high full toss. Chapman wasn't going to let Axar off the hook. He brought up his half-century with a towering six over midwicket.
With the Indian bowlers going for runs at that stage, the hosts desperately needed someone to step up. Who else but India's most experienced bowler? Ashwin brought all his experience into play in the 13th over with the wickets of Chapman and Glenn Phillips. Instead of bowling flatter, he slowed it up, luring Chapman to play a false stroke across the line and getting him bowled. Phillips (0) seemed out of his depth against Ashwin in his all too brief stay at the crease.
Not that the two wickets slowed Guptill. Against the pacers in particular, Guptill sent the ball soaring into the night sky with crisp strikes down the ground and through his favoured midwicket region. Just when it was looking like NZ were set for a grandstand finish, a miscued shot from Guptill brought India back into the game. The last three overs fetched just 20 runs as NZ missed the services of big-hitters like James Neesham.