Concerns about the middle-order have been pressing of late, so much that India’s top-order solidity has almost been taken for granted. Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill as openers, Virat Kohli at No.3 — we know what they can do if they get going. But Shaheen Shah Afridi forced India to confront exactly the scenario they were desperate to avoid. Two wickets in two overs and India were wobbling without Sharma and Kohli. Shreyas Iyer was looking in great touch till he pulled Haris Rauf straight to Fakhar Zaman at midwicket.
At 48/3, India were wading into a situation that probably was asking too much from Gill and Ishan Kishan — India’s youngest double centurions — because expectations in an India-Pakistan match don’t always meet their desired ends. Gill’s tepid foot movement to an express delivery from Rauf further vindicated that. But Kishan dug in. And then played an innings unlike him, possibly his most important till date. This easily surpasses Kishan’s double hundred simply because of the opposition, the tournament, the build-up to a World Cup where he isn’t a first eleven pick and, not to forget, the distraction erratic showers bring with them.
It’s not like Kishan didn’t play the way he loves to. The six off Rauf that he almost hopped out of his crease to chase and slash over deep backward point was so Ishan Kishan. As was the risky whip of his legs for a four that could have easily landed in Mohammad Nawaz’s hands. Rauf was easily averaging 145 kph this phase of the game but Kishan wasn’t holding back. The play-and-misses were coming but the intent also shone through.
This was after Pakistan seemed to be running away with the game after taking the upper hand in almost every metric in the first powerplay. Afridi was all length, shorter in his second spell and cutting the ball brilliantly. Naseem Shah was a little wayward but also made batters search outside their off-stump. But Pakistan probably lost the plot a bit by taking the pacers off the attack too quickly. With over rate becoming a concern after showers kept hitting Pallekele, Pakistan turned to their spinners to bring them up to speed. It probably played into India’s hands.
First over against Shadab Khan, Kishan drilled a full toss down the ground for a four. Another low full toss three balls later and this time Kishan dissected mid-off for another boundary. Nawaz too was guilty of overpitching, prompting Kishan to lean forward and drive through extra cover for four. By this time Pakistan were being Pakistan in the field, allowing India to slowly come back into the match. Not without Hardik Pandya, however, could India have staged this, as the all-rounder took his time to blunt the initial aggression before finding the gaps and building a much-needed partnership.
He ended up with a 90-ball 87, the highest of the Indian innings, but the score doesn’t necessarily tell you how sensibly it was grafted. Pandya started with a four, opening his bat to guide Rauf to third man where Shah slipped up. A short-arm pull off Afridi for a boundary in the middle overs was just the kind of support Kishan needed but overall, Pandya was content doing what he has been doing for a while now — salvaging innings.
Cover drive was his most productive shot but with ones and twos, off smart dabs and by working out the fields without taking any risk, Pandya slowly pulled India out of trouble. Raising 200 in 36.4 overs, India seemed in a perfect position to go for a 300-plus score, but they couldn’t deliver the final push.
Kishan was the first to go after trying to pull Rauf’s back-of-the-length delivery, the ball spearing towards mid-on for an easy catch. Pandya was in a perfect place to take over from Kishan, and he followed up with a flurry of boundaries, including three against Rauf in the 40th over. But a slower ball from Afridi finally did him in as Pandya pushed at it half-heartedly, sending it to Agha Salman at extra cover.
The lower order didn’t bat according to expectation, leaving Pakistan a competitive 266 to chase before rain washed out the game, but that 138-run stand between Kishan and Pandya must have been assuring for India in more ways than one.