NZ spin trio routs India on raging turner
New Zealand gambled with three spinners, leaving out Tim Southee and Trent Boult, and the ploy worked so well that they toppled tournament favourites India by 47 runs
For a long time, this New Zealand team was under the charge of a man who loved a gamble or two. But would even Brendon McCullum have been funky enough to go up to his two best bowlers, Tim Southee and Trent Boult, on the team's opening match of a World T20 and say, 'Pick up the bibs, lads. You're out.'? Kane Williamson did. He saw a dry Nagpur pitch, heard how the ball had turned during the qualifier games at the venue and asked Nathan McCullum, Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi to clock in for duty. The first of those three spinners is in the twilight of his career, the other two had played only five T20Is each. And India had no answers against them.
No one expected it to go down like this. MS Dhoni and his men came into the tournament on a seven-match winning streak. They were back home now, just as New Zealand were in alien territory. They had not played in the subcontinent for two years, and their batting had all the symptoms of it to put up only 126 for 7.
An early wicket was vital and New Zealand looked to a McCullum for the magic touch. Nathan, who will join his little brother in retirement after this tournament, trapped Shikhar Dhawan lbw fifth ball. Minutes later, Rohit Sharma was undone by a superb delivery, this time from Santner. The batsman had trotted down the pitch but made the mistake of closing the face. Normally it wouldn't have been a fatal one, considering Santner specialises in non-turning darts. But on this pitch he was given all the help he could ask for. The ball turned square, and bounced so much that the wicketkeeper couldn't collect it cleanly. But Rohit had lunged so far outside his crease that Luke Ronchi had enough time to recover.
India might not have been nervous at this point, but New Zealand began believing.
Virat Kohli was the reason why the hosts held hope. For much of his 27 balls, he looked in control of the situation because he was in control of himself. On a track that was turning square, batsmen needed to play close to the body and trust in proper cricketing shots. He managed it for 26 balls before Ish Sodhi broke down his discipline. A beautiful legspinner was pitched up for the drive, Kohli went after it and feathered an edge to the wicketkeeper. India were 39 for 5, and definitely nervous now. Not long after, they were 79 all out and rather red-faced. "We lacked a bit of adaptability," Dhoni admitted.
New Zealand couldn't cope with the ball not coming onto the bat either. They tried to smash their way to supremacy - Martin Guptill hit the first ball of the Super 10s for a straight six and Colin Munro began with a jaw-dropping switch hit - but got through to the end of the Powerplay with 22 dots and 33 runs on the board.
Corey Anderson was their top-scorer with 34 runs, but his 42-ball innings encapsulated New Zealand's struggle. Should we hit out? Should we hunker down? They did something in between and it wasn't pretty. Only hindsight proved it was effective. And the fact that Santner, Sodhi and McCullum kept pitching the ball at the stumps and allowed a rank turner to do the rest. After all, only when a batsmen is pushed to play can he give his wicket away.
After the first innings, it looked like India should have had plenty of match-winners. R Ashwin struck in the first over of the match. Jasprit Bumrah, who excels at the death, came away with 1 for 15. Suresh Raina instigated a superb run-out to dismiss Ross Taylor for 10 and had Williamson stumped for 8. That's New Zealand's backbone sent packing by the 12th over with the score only on 61.
But as willing as Raina the bowler was, Raina the batsman could not handle the fight. He strode in during the third over, offered a tame catch to midwicket and was back in the dressing room before the over was done. Soon after, Yuvraj Singh popped a return catch to McCullum and four of the India's top five were gone for single-digits.
Meanwhile, Santner was bowling like a dream and despite him finishing as the highest-wicket taker on the night, it was Sodhi who extracted the most turn. His legspinners ripped past the outside edge regularly and his control had never looked so good. He finished with 3 for 18 - all of which were characterised by defeating the batsman in flight. Kohli was caught behind, Jadeja closed the face too early after coming forward and Ashwin was dragged out of his crease to be stumped.
New Zealand trusted in a set of bowlers capable of exploiting a raging turner. Santner, McCullum and Sodhi delivered them a win against the tournament favourites.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo