India 285 for 7 (Dhawan 127, Rayudu 60, Kinchit 3-39, Ehsan Khan 2-65) beat Hong Kong (Nizakat 92, Rath 73, Chahal 3-46, Khaleel 3-48, Kuldeep 2-42) by 26 runs
For three glorious hours, Hong Kong believed. And they made the cricket world believe with them. It would have been amongst the biggest upsets in cricket history, a nation that had lost its ODI status months back stunning the second-ranked big daddy of the cricket world. But then, reality struck in the form of India's much greater experience, which was enough to squeeze out a 26-run win.
If ever there was a victor feeling harried and the vanquished feeling close to triumphant, it was on Tuesday. Hong Kong may have been knocked out of the Asia Cup 2018, but they struck another telling blow for the Associate cause. India meanwhile, will have to shake off the after-effects of an intense, full-length match in sapping conditions and wake up on the morrow for the most draining match of all, against Pakistan.
Shikhar Dhawan's 14th ODI century had carried India to 285 for 7, with Hong Kong's bowlers negating a powerful start to allow only 48 runs in the last ten overs. They carried that buoyant momentum with them when they came out to bat, with openers Nizakat Khan and Anshuman Rath putting on a 174-run partnership, the highest for Hong Kong in ODIs.
Nizakat and Rath had rocketed away at the start of the innings, punishing India's wayward seam bowling. Debutant Khaleel Ahmed was hit for two fours in his second over, Bhuvneshwar Kumar too suffered the same fate a little later, and Shardul Thakur had a nightmare of a game. He bowled a ten-ball third over that had three free hits and eventually cost 17 runs and took Hong Kong to 77 without loss in 12 overs, well above a run-a-ball and well on course for the target.
On a pitch that was slow where the ball wasn't coming on, it was always going to come down to the spin duo of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, supported by Kedar Jadhav, and while the openers did extremely well to not get out to the spinners when they first came on, the scoring rate fell drastically. The spin trio bowled in rotation for 18 overs in which only a further 67 runs came.
Another over from Shardul brought 13 runs and Rath took the attack to Jadhav to swat a six over midwicket, but the momentum had shifted subtly and Hong Kong were playing catch up. If they had more experience of top-flight cricket and handling quality spin, they would have still been favoured to pull off a win, but even from 164 for no loss in 32 overs, the odds favoured India, and so it proved as Hong Kong ended at 259 for 8.
The choke by spin eventually resulted in Rath falling to Kuldeep for 73 off 97. One brought two, as Nizakat was trapped in front for a 115-ball 92 to become Khaleel's first international wicket. With the two set batsmen gone and the required rate mounting, India took firmer control. The odd hit to the fence still came, but more as a show of defiance than a hit that would take Hong Kong closer to victory. Kuldeep (2 for 42) and Chahal (3 for 46) took five between them while Khaleel (3 for 48) a successful debut.
Earlier, India got off to a strong start after being put in to bat. Atypically, it was Rohit Sharma who got off the blocks quicker than Dhawan. Rohit was looking like he was about to enter the ominous-for-opposition territory when he holed out off a leading edge for 23. Ambati Rayudu - back in the team alongwith Jadhav - started cautiously but settled in thereafter. Rayudu would go on to make a confidence-boosting 60 off 70 in a 116-run stand with Dhawan for the second wicket.
At the other end, Dhawan was fluent once he adjusted to the pace of the pitch. Sussing what shots would work quickly, he was imperious while driving and flicking, and mostly untroubled by Hong Kong's bowlers.
Dhawan's innings stood in starker relief when viewed against the other batting efforts in the match. He alone among all batsmen acquired a measure of domination against the bowlers and sustained it. While he was still there, India were looking strong, and at 237 for 2 in 40 overs, would have been eyeing a total well in excess of 300.
Once he fell to Kinchit Shah, there was a mini-collapse in which India lost three wickets in two overs for the addition of just eight runs - including MS Dhoni for a two-ball duck that stunned the sparse crowd into silence. Hong Kong had figured out that taking the pace off would work best in these conditions, and they reaped the rewards of smart strategy. At the death, Jadhav played his assortment of innovative and unorthodox shots to make an unbeaten 28 off 27 with just one six - chipped over Ehsan Nawaz - to push India past 280.
At the halfway stage, it seemed less than what India should have got but more than enough for Hong Kong. Nizakat and Rath quickly showed how inadequate it could have been, taking Hong Kong close to a fairytale finish.