Chahar & Arshdeep send back half SA side in 15 balls as India secure victory in first T20I

Some of the stands were just filling in; most of the spectators were finding their way and sitting in the maze of the colossal Greenfield Stadium; the moonless sky was not yet fully dark. The game was just 15 balls old, not even one-tenth of the match had progressed, but already the contest seemed dead, and the match slow-burning to a long and dreary climax.

The contest, in that sense, was over before it had begun. Over much before KL Rahul sealed India’s eight-wicket win with a thumping six off Tabraiz Shamsi with 18 balls to spare. Over when South Africa lost five wickets in 15 balls.

T20 games are not unaccustomed to explosive starts, but often, it’s the case of opening batsmen tearing into the bowlers on shirtfronts. The recent Australia-India series was a classic instance, wherein the openers bulldozed the bowlers on standard flat-tracks. But here, the script made a mockery of run-of-the-mill T20 plot-lines. A contrarian narrative where the bowlers hooped the ball around, leaving batsmen stupefied as much as petrified on a track with a greenish tinge. But for the floodlights, coloured jerseys and the white ball, it seemed a passage from the first 15 balls of a Test match, and the freshly-landed visitors struggled to cope with the pace and bounce. Read the scorecard after 15 balls — five wickets and nine runs — and one got a Test-match resonance. Except that this was a T20 game, touted to be a high-scoring one (it goes without saying these days, as the decks could only be batter-friendly in this format).

Chaos descended swiftly, though South Africa were forewarned. It took Deepak Chahar just two balls to file a sinister warning at South Africa opener and captain Temba Bavuma. It was a low full-toss that swung devilishly in the air. That there was swing on offer was clear; clearer was that Chahar prospers when it swings. But Bavuma seemed immune to cricketing wisdom. Or he thought he could repel swing with bat-swing. He was rudely mistaken.

The next two balls were away-goers too. Bavuma looked to slap and slash, missed one and toe-ended the other.

Then struck the inevitable. The Chahar in-swinger. Bavuma would have second-guessed the ball. It’s a cricketing altruism of sorts — bend the ball away three times and nip one back. And nip Chahar did, beguilingly. The good-length ball began its journey from outside off-stump, landed on off-stump or thereabouts, just kept bending inwards, the length sucking Bavuma into a drive before sneaking through his awry defence. It was just the sixth ball of the innings.

Unplayable

The ball was a little gem; but another gem out-sparkled it. The 12th ball of the innings, when Arshdeep Singh speared in a wondrous in-swinger to dismantle David Miller’s stumps.

It requires great control and courage for a left-arm seamer to swing the ball into a left-handed batter from over the stumps. There lurks the risk of straying into the body; there is no edge-of-the crease angle to work with, like for a right-handed seamer to a left-hander from over the stumps. The bowler could end up erring on the fuller side. The ball has to be exact, like a geometrical figure. Pitching just around off-stump or thereabouts and swerving into the batter.

Arshdeep’s run-up starts wide, but at release he gets closer to the stumps. It makes the trajectory all the more inconceivable — the ball has to curve away to curl in and few bowlers accomplish that. Arshdeep’s ball did exactly that. When the ball burst from his palms, it seemed to shape away a trifle in the air, before it changed path and moved into the batter in the air. Miller’s eyes were going this way and that, his mind probably frozen for a response, hands sweaty and feet stuck. When the brain freezes, so does the body. Then in his vast T20 career, Miller might not have seen more mischievous balls. He ended up chancily driving at the ball, which was simultaneously sizzling and sinister.

Perhaps, one could be blind to the indiscretion and ineptitude of Bavuma and Miller and say that the balls that terminated them were near unplayable. But what happened between the sixth and 12th balls should rankle South Africa more. Quinton de Kock chopped the ball back onto the stumps, the eighth ball of the innings. He shaped to cut, but the ball was not short enough. The stroke reeked of rustiness. Three balls later, Rilee Rossouw wafted aimlessly at an Arshdeep out-swinger. The trajectory of the delivery was delicious — whooshing in and the whistling away — but the ball was a touch wide to harm him had he left it alone. But a burst of impetuousness saw Rossouw merely throwing his hands at the ball, the feet leaden, as was the case with most South African batsmen. They stumbled deep to eight for three wickets, and the next ball, they were reduced to eight for four when Arshdeep blasted Miller’s stumps with that pearler.

More carnage

Three balls later, on the 15th of the innings, Chahar had Tristan Stubbs caught at deep point attempting a cut. A reckless stroke in the circumstances, though Chahar extracted some extra bounce. Then on, from 9 for five, there was no way back for South Africa. That they crossed the century mark and scored as many as 106 and avoided the all-out ignominy was thanks to Keshav Maharaj’s cameo of 41 and twenties from Markram and Wayne Parnell.

But it was as much a case of India’s seamers harnessing the swinging conditions as the South African batsmen playing loose strokes and failing to sense the drift of the match. The pitch was tough to bat against the new ball, but not wicked enough to lose five wickets in 15 balls.

Perhaps, like the crowd, they did not expect to see the ball swinging in a T20 game. Even the bowlers might have been genuinely surprised, most so after the carnage they were subjected to in the Asia Cup and the Australia series. But to their credit, Arshdeep and Chahar maximised their breaks. Whereas Chahar’s skill for swing has been well chronicled, Arshdeep’s ability to swing (he could seam too) has rarely come to the fore. But it did on Wednesday, lifting his stock for a spot in the first eleven at the World Cup.

He has more variations than he seems to have. Against South Africa, he swung the ball both ways to both right- and left- handers, bowled a peach of a bouncer to Aiden Markram, flung in yorkers and cutters at the death. The art lies not just in possessing the variations but in understanding when and why to use them. Arshdeep has the ability to pick those precise moments. Just one over did he take to wreak havoc. And 15 balls for the match to be effectively decided.

The spectators knew it all along, and when they left the stadium, would reflect on a bizarre day of T20 cricket. They might have bought tickets for the entertainment they are used to — sixes, fours, tall scores, and a thrilling chase. Instead, they saw swing, two splendid deliveries, and some fireworks from Rahul and Suryakumar Yadav. But T20 cricket wouldn’t mind an odd change in theme. Rather, it would only bask in the variety of it. And amidst the clutter of similarly-flowing narratives, the match could have more recall value for its departure from the usual tropes.

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