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Match Analysis

In India's gauntlet match, Kohli must hit the right gears to stay in the fight

While the established superstars have been away, new batters have come in and are playing a truer T20 game

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
There's something called a gauntlet match in professional wrestling. Usually, it is employed to identify the No. 1 contender for the title, but the real purpose is to provide insurmountable odds in the path of a crowd favourite so that the payoff when the competitor makes it is sweet. Two wrestlers start a fight, the winner faces another fresh wrestler, and the winner of that match faces another fresh wrestler.
It usually ends at four or five matches, with the crowd hero starting in the first match and making it to the end to face a final competitor, an established wrestler who is the odds-on favourite to beat this exhausted wrestler barely able to stand.
It is loosely similar to what is happening to India's batting in T20Is. While the established superstars have been away either through injury or workload management or for Test commitments, new batters have come in and are playing a truer T20 game. They are not setting themselves up to score 80s at a strike rate of around 135-140 batting first; they are instead all going for it, and are okay with 30s at 180.
The Southampton T20I was the last one before Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli will both be available. Deepak Hooda, Suryakumar Yadav and Hardik Pandya properly threw down the gauntlet at anyone who wants to claim any of their spots. Pandya is of course under no threat because he is the only seam-bowling allrounder in India's T20I set-up.
And they were not the only ones. Six of the top seven hit at least one boundary in the first five balls they faced. Hooda ended England's offspin ploy by hitting Moeen Ali for two sixes in the first three balls he faced. Suryakumar swept the first ball he faced for four. They had pure I-won't-let-you-sneak-in-soft-overs energy.
Axar Patel, a pinch anchor of sorts to make sure finisher Dinesh Karthik got his ideal point of entry, didn't exactly hang around either, hitting a boundary the third ball he faced and ending with a strike rate of 142.
India didn't end the innings perfectly, losing steam in the last three overs because Harshal Patel found himself stuck, but their intent in the earlier overs made up for this below-par finish. Nor will the No. 8 batter struggle every day.
This approach is a pleasant change for a side that has shown in the past that it is capable of batting this way, but does so only when behind in a series and asked to bat first in a must-win match. To do so in the first match of a series against England, and after choosing to bat, is a remarkable change in intent.
"We have spoken about it a lot," India's returning captain Rohit told Michael Atherton at the post-match presentation. Atherton asked about intent in the powerplay, but Rohit spoke about the general approach after talking about the first six overs.
"There is a certain approach we want to take. Yes, sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn't, but you have to keep backing yourself to do that again and again," Rohit said. "That's why it is so challenging, because you can't keep coming and doing the same thing every now and then.
"It is something we have spoken about, and all the players need to buy into it. Not just one or two players who understand what they want to do, but the whole batting unit coming together and understanding where the team wants to go. Guys seem to be pretty clear with that message."
This, of course, leaves us with the question: whom does Kohli replace for the last two matches? Can you imagine a world in which Kohli is available to come back, and he is not a natural pick? To say that Kohli doesn't have the right intent will be to suggest he is not mindful, which will be wrong.
He is certainly aware of what is needed, but he is possibly trying to find the right gears, especially against spin in the middle overs. This game time will be crucial for him.
And this is not professional wrestling. So even though he might be entering the gauntlet match last, Kohli is no entitled heel. He is believed by many to be a must in the T20 World Cup in Australia because of how good he is against pace and bounce.
And in a short tournament, you need batters who can adjust instantly thanks to prior experience of playing in those conditions. Still, if Kohli struggles to find similar efficiency in the coming games, it will leave the team management and selectors with a difficult decision to make.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo