Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
Krunal Pandya's first touch in international cricket was disastrous. Moments after making his debut, he was chasing a Shai Hope drive to the boundary off the evening's second delivery.
Krunal had covered the ground in a flash by sprinting towards the boundary. But just as he slid across the ground to parry the ball back, it inadvertently slipped through his fingers and touched the boundary rope. A despondent Krunal was left with retrieveing the ball from beyond the boundary.
Starting your India career with an error is not the best of starts. But that first mistake would also be his last in a dream debut that saw India clinch a five-wicket win against West Indies in the series opener.
Introduced in the eighth over by captain Rohit Sharma, Krunal conceded ten off his first over. He could not quite gauge the turn offered by the pitch, and after two consecutive wides down the leg side, Krunal had been deposited by Kieron Pollard over long-off. Team-mates in the IPL, Pollard would have faced Krunal countless times over the past three years in the Mumbai Indians nets, and it looked like the West Indian allrounder had a one-up over his Indian counterpart after the first-over bout. But in his second over, a composed Krunal quickly made amends.
The first ball of his second over rapped Pollard on the pads, a tight lbw shout turned down. But the next delivery, a quicker one that skidded through, was smacked right down long-on's throat once the fielder was positioned straighter after that previous six. Krunal had earned his maiden international wicket, and he did not hesitate to blow kisses towards Pollard as he trodded his way back to the pavillion at 47 for 4.
"He's (Pollard) like a brother to me," Krunal told Star Sports after the match. "And to get him as the first international wicket is a special thing for me because I've been very close to him. During the game itself, I was teasing him that I got his wicket. The kisses at the end was my love for Pollard after getting him out."
Krunal did not add to his wickets tally from there but he also did not concede any more boundaries after that, finishing with 1 for 15 off his four overs, going for only five runs off his final 18 deliveries.
It must have helped that Krunal was being captained by his leader at Mumbai Indians. In the IPL, Rohit had utilised Krunal's skills brilliantly in the middle overs, using the left-arm spinner's accuracy to plug the flow of runs. In Kolkata, it was much of the same, as he let the debutant place his fielders just as he wished and backed him without adding any pressure.
"I have played a lot under Rohit, under 40-50 games of IPL under him," Krunal said. "The best part about playing under him is he allows you to express yourself, whether you're bowling or batting. He keeps things simple and he just says that whatever you want, I'll give you. Whether fielding or batting also, he never gives you pressure."
Rohit may not have exerted any pressure on him, but the scoreboard surely did when Krunal walked in to bat in the chase. India were at 83 for 5 after 15 overs, with 27 runs to get, and Krunal joined Dinesh Karthik amidst stunned silence after Manish Pandey's dismissal. Another wicket and India's weak tail would have been exposed.
But Krunal has been in such situations before. For Mumbai Indians, he has played the role of the finisher fairly well in the past. Remember his Man-of-the-Match performance in the IPL 2017 final? India needed a similar innings from Krunal and, of course, he delivered.
With another finisher in Karthik at the other end, Krunal quickly soaked in all the pressure built up by dot balls. He took a single off his first, ran a hard double off his second, and by the time he had faced the third ball, Krunal was batting like this was his 50th international match and not his first. The experience of playing over 50 T20s overall was showing. When Fabian Allen floated one up, maybe tempting the batsman to slog, Krunal quickly shuffled across the line and executed a reverse paddle towards the third-man boundary for four. India needed a comfortable 16 off 24 now.
In the next over, Krunal dabbed one fine off left-arm spinner Kharry Pierre to beat short-third man, and with 10 runs to go when the 18th over began, he nonchalantly flicked Keemo Paul off his pads to the deep-midwicket boundary. He got the winning runs in style, driving over cover and jogging back for the second, to seal the chase with 13 balls left. He finished with 21 off just nine balls - the best strike rate (233.33) among all batsmen on the evening.
When asked whether he felt any nerves before going in to bat at No. 7, Krunal said, "Not at all, no butterflies at all to be honest. I told myself that I have prepared before this tournament and I have been waiting for this opportunity. Then why should I take pressure at that particular moment? So I was completely enjoying myself when I was there. I was just thinking about how I started playing and that this is my moment, so I can't let go from here."
This is what Krunal had worked towards for the past three years. He had seen his younger brother Hardik catapult his way into the India team, and he himself had to wait. Hardik, currently out with a back injury, told his brother to play "fearless cricket", and Krunal displayed exactly that with both ball and bat. Some say that Krunal is fighting for Hardik's spot as the allrounder in the India team, but the brothers don't see it that way.
"We don't compete with each other," Krunal said after the match. "Hardik is a completely different category, he's a fast-bowling allrounder and I'm a spinning allrounder. So I doubt we need to compete. I'd love to play with him, rather than competing with him. I've mentioned before also, whenever he does well, I feel so happy. And whenever I do well, he feels so happy. There is no rivalry. We are so worried about each other [when the other is in action].
"Before this series he was teasing me that, 'Keep my name, go and perform'. I told him, 'Okay, just make sure I don't overtake you'. It was all banter, that's how my relationship is with Hardik. Just before the game when I was with him before joining the team, he told me, 'Just go out there and play fearless cricket, what you've been doing'. That's the only advice - apart from that I guess Hardik can't give anything."
It hardly looked like it was Krunal's first international match. He looked like a man who was always in control. Perhaps, it was the long wait since his breakthrough IPL season that moulded him for this moment, perhaps it was the advantage of having a brother who has been here before, or perhaps, it was Krunal's attitude of making it count in his first match itself.
"Honestly, I have been waiting for my opportunities," he said. "I was preparing myself before the tournament - whether playing IPL or domestic cricket - but my ultimate goal was to play for India from childhood.
"But lately I was desperately waiting for my opportunity. And I told myself, I don't need two-three games, I just need one game, because that's how I prepared myself. I like whenever there is a pressure situation, because I work hard for that situation, not for the easy one. So whenever I get those kind of situations, I feel, 'Okay, here I can be a hero'. So whenever I see this kind of situation, I love it."
With Rohit leading him for the next two games in Lucknow and Chennai, don't be surprised if Krunal's all-round performances make him a regular member of India's T20 set-up soon, and perhaps, even a candidate for the 50-over World Cup squad next year.