If the Indian team (or the fans) were expecting a short day in the field, in the searing Dubai heat, less than 24 hours before the marquee match against Pakistan, they were in for a surprise. Hong Kong, the team that recently lost a match to Malaysia in the qualifiers for the Asia Cup and who don’t even have official ODI status, were in with a chance to win the game (on paper, at least) till the 100th and final over of the match.
Let that sink in.
In the end, India sneaked home by 26 runs, with the proceedings coming to an end close to midnight local time — about 15 hours before Rohit Sharma would have to once again walk out for the toss, this time alongside Sarfaraz Ahmed.
It was not supposed to be but how did it come to this?
Hong Kong were supposed to roll over, let India have their warm-up, get their batsmen to spend some time in the middle, make a century or two and get back to their hotel nice and early.
Only, cricket doesn’t work like that.
Hong Kong had other ideas, one that 20-year-old captain Anshuman Rath alluded to at the toss. At that instant, when he said he wanted to bowl first because that’s their strength and he believed his team could restrict India before giving it a go later in the night with the run-chase, it was scarcely believable. But his team executed that plan to near-perfection.
And key to that was exploiting two of India’s biggest weaknesses in white-ball cricket at the moment — two blocks of 10 overs that are repeatedly coming back to bother them.
Finishing troubles with the bat
In the 42nd over of the Indian innings, after MS Dhoni was dismissed for a duck, the camera panned to a nine-year-old kid in the stands. He was sporting the T20 version of India’s jersey, with No 7 on the back and Dhoni’s name on it. And when the former India captain got out by edging a spinner off the third ball he faced, and just as fans on social media were sharpening their knives to wade into the MSD debate, this young kid lost his cool, stomped around the aisles, let out a few cries of “booo!” and looked as if he was ready to pull his hair out.
That, in essence, might be how most India fans might be feeling at the state of the middle order in ODIs at the moment.
At the end of the 40 overs, India’s score read 237/2.
Shikhar Dhawan, in complete control of the proceedings since the colour of the ball was white, was batting on 126. Dinesh Karthik, after struggling for timing early on his innings, was getting into a groove and batting on 25. 300 seemed a near certainty.
But from there, the moment the set batsmen were dismissed, India’s middle and lower order was once again exposed. Even accounting for the fact that the pitch was difficult to bat on, if you are a new batsman and that the average first innings score in Dubai in the last year is less than 210, it was not the best of finishes from the Indian team. The problem of throwing away a good platform, before stumbling on to a par score has been a thorn in the flesh of this Indian side and it was neatly exploited by Hong Kong.
Rath resorted to using Kinchit Shah’s accurate off-spinners at one end, for an uninterrupted nine-over spell to close out the innings. Given the slowness of the pitch and the rustiness of the middle order, that plan worked like a treat with Shah accounting for Dhawan and Dinesh Karthik in the 41st and 43rd overs. India never got going after that. Shah and Co restricted India to just 48 runs in the final 10 overs. It still felt like a good score on board but, suddenly, Hong Kong had a window to cause an upset.
Starting troubles with the ball
And the opening kept getting bigger as the match progressed, with Anshuman Rath and Nizakat Khan putting on an opening partnership where they broke Hong Kong ODI records for fun. It started, though, with a calculated targetting of India’s new ball bowlers in the first powerplay — another area of concern for India in the 50-over format. After the first 10 overs, Hong Kong were level with India’s powerplay score (56) but had not lost a wicket.
The numbers would tell you this no surprise, especially in Jasprit Bumrah’s absence. In ODIs in the past 12 months, India’s opening pair of bowlers have the second worst strike rate (40.7) among all cricketing nations, with only Zimbabwe below them, and the fourth worst bowling average. Taking wickets with the two balls in the first 10 overs has been a problem area for a while now, with only Bumrah doing it with any consistency. And in his absence, Rath and Khan got their side off to just the perfect start.
Once the foundation was in place, the duo kept adding to it, impressively not being troubled by Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav when they inevitably started bowling in tandem after the first powerplay. But bolstered by the confidence of not losing a wicket in the first 10 overs — the first side to do so in this Asia Cup — the right-left combination thwarted India’s main weapons with relative ease, not losing a wicket in their respective six-over spells. It wasn’t until the 35th over that India finally had a wicket to celebrate — the partnership ending on 174, Hong Kong’s best-ever stand for any wicket against a top-10 side in ODIs.
With Bumrah likely to come back into the playing XI, Rohit might be hoping the story might be different in the first 10 overs while India bowl against Pakistan. It simply would have to be, given how strong Pakistan’s top order is these days with Imam-ul-haq, Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam. As far as the batting order and the ‘Middle Muddle’ is concerned, it doesn’t look like a solution is in the offing, unless one of the batsmen decide to grab their chance and run with it.
Otherwise, where Hong Kong merely came close to pulling off a win, Pakistan could well end up being successful more than once in this Asia Cup.