India v New Zealand, World T20 2016, Group 2, Nagpur March 15, 2016

Googly at the toss turns the tables on India

In a bold strategic move portended by Afghanistan's starting XI in Nagpur a week earlier, New Zealand rode the unheralded spin trio of Nathan McCullum, Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi to a stunning win over pre-tournament favourite India

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In September 2012, New Zealand went into a T20I against India, in Chennai, with Kyle Mills, Adam Milne, Jacob Oram, Daniel Vettori, Ronnie Hira and James Franklin making up an allrounder-heavy bowling attack. Between that match and Tuesday's World T20 game in Nagpur, they played 35 T20Is, and at least one among Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Mitchell McClenaghan featured in 34 of them.

The one match they did not was in December 2014, during a T20I series against Pakistan to which New Zealand sent a largely second-string squad. No one raised an eyebrow when New Zealand revealed their eleven for that game, an experimental combination in a largely inconsequential contest.

No one could quite believe their eyes, however, when New Zealand left out Southee, Boult and McClenaghan in the opening game of their World T20 campaign. The big screen at the VCA Stadium flashed each player's face, one by one, got as far as No. 9 without any mishap, and blanked out after beaming Boult's face to the crowd. Someone must have told the operator Boult wasn't playing; the operator clearly hadn't taken the news well.

New Zealand had their reasons of course. Over the course of the next three-and-a-half hours, they proved to be perfectly sound reasons. At that point, however, it seemed to make little sense. Yes, this was a slow pitch, and yes, it would probably take turn as well. But three spinners?

Teams playing India in India don't do three spinners, regardless of format. They might leave out one of their seamers and play a second spinner, and that too only if that second spinner also happens to be handy with the bat. But not three spinners. Not at the cost of leaving out your first-choice new-ball pairing as well as a bustling limited-overs regular.

It was a brave move, but also a logical one. New Zealand must have watched the first-round matches that took place in Nagpur, and seen a slow pitch that offered increasing help to the spinners as one match followed the next. They must have seen Afghanistan benefit from packing their side with spinners against Scotland, even at the cost of leaving out Shapoor Zadran and Hamid Hassan, their two most experienced quicks.

The stakes for New Zealand were just a little higher.

If their thinking had this level of openness to it, it was because they were trying to find solutions to a new problem. They hadn't played any match in the subcontinent, in any format, since March 2014 at the prior World T20 in Bangladesh, and the tactics that had served them well in other lands since then would have required a tweak in some Indian venues and an overhaul in some others. Nagpur was overhaul territory.

Approaching the same game, India's thinking would have been entirely different. They were on a sensational run of results, winning 10 of their last 11 T20I games stretching back to the start of the year in Australia. The same combination, more or less, had featured in every match, and they had not needed to change their tactics too much from one match to the next. The only jolt they received was a defeat to Sri Lanka on a Pune pitch so green and bouncy that it belonged on another continent and in another era.

India would have seen how the Nagpur pitch had behaved through the first round, but a slow turner wasn't an unknown challenge. They had a team used to such conditions. They had most bases covered. They must have felt little need for changes in personnel.

Things went largely India's way through the first half of the match. There might have been a bit of concern, judging by the sheer degree of turn available, but they would have backed themselves to chase down 127.

But now came their first taste of the unexpected. Most of India's batsmen would never have faced up to a non-Asian limited-overs attack containing three spinners and none of Nathan McCullum, Mitchell Santner or Ish Sodhi are heralded names.

Ish Sodhi and the rest of the New Zealand spin attack celebrated early and often on Tuesday in Nagpur © Associated Press

Shikhar Dhawan was probably looking to make an early statement when he aimed a sweep at McCullum in the first over of the second innings. It seemed like a bit of an ego shot. He picked the worst possible ball for it, pitching on the stumps and straightening, and executed it poorly, failing to get down low and get his head over the ball. He missed, the ball hit his front pad, and India were 5 for 1.

When Santner replaced McCullum, Rohit Sharma jumped out of his crease to the left-armer's second ball. This is Twenty20, and the relationship between risk and reward is nothing like it is in the longer formats, but you are always giving the bowler an advantage when you step out too early. Santner looped it slower, shorter, and ripped it past Rohit. And Rohit made it easier for the ball to spin past him by looking to play against the turn.

Three balls later, another batsman perished to Santner. This time the ball stopped on a tentative Suresh Raina and popped up off his leading edge.

"I think in every alternate over we lost one wicket," MS Dhoni later said. "It becomes more and more difficult once the top order gets out. The batsmen who come in at five, six or seven, they have that pressure of an extra wicket falling, so it seems as if cricket becomes very difficult, but what's important is that the batsmen get some kind of a partnership going.

"Even if it's not big, in terms of the number of runs scored, it just gives that calmness to the dressing room and the batsmen coming afterwards. So I think it was to some extent a lack of application. A few good deliveries, but today I think it was more about the soft dismissals than the good deliveries."

The one partnership that did threaten to develop was between Dhoni and Virat Kohli, who briefly showed how India could have approached their task against the spinners. They played with a straight bat, looked to take singles to the deep fielders down the ground or to the sweepers on either side, and twos when they hit the gaps between those fielders.

But New Zealand, thanks to their selection, had plenty of spin overs in reserve. Sodhi produced the ball of the innings to remove the till-then faultless Kohli, flighting it above his eyeline, inviting the cover drive, and getting it to dip and turn away sharply to find the edge. Then he ended the only other partnership of note, a 30-run stand for the eighth wicket, beating the advancing R Ashwin in the air and off the pitch with another ripping legbreak.

Ravindra Jadeja had turned it just as big in the first half of the game, but there was a sense, at least in the first few overs of the chase, that India may have felt New Zealand's spinners wouldn't be able to find as much purchase. Santner, McCullum and Sodhi proved otherwise.

Somehow, at the start of the 18th over, with India needing an improbable 52 from 18 balls, Dhoni produced a horizontal-bat swat, against the turn, to bisect deep backward square leg and deep midwicket. On the next ball, Santner quickly reminded Dhoni of what he was up against, pitching one just short of a length on middle stump, and turning it almost at a right angle.

There was no earthly way for Dhoni to play any sort of shot at that sort of ball. There was no earthly way for Dhoni to win this for India. There might just have been, had New Zealand baulked at playing three spinners.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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