A win by 23 runs in Twenty20 cricket is generally considered a sizeable victory; at times it is given additional weight when the two teams involved are heavyweights. But in the case of India’s 23-run win over Afghanistan on Wednesday at the Premadasa in Colombo, the margin of victory was rather unflattering. It fact, it was embarrassing.
Put in to bat, India's total of 159 for 5 was ultimately more than enough, but it was a performance missing a definite stamp bar yet another half-century from Virat Kohli – his sixth in six consecutive international innings. Gautam Gambhir again perished to that damnable stab outside off stump; Virender Sehwag merely poked and got a thin edge to the wicketkeeper; and Yuvraj was sluggish and unsure of how to approach his innings, scoring 18 off 20 balls. Cut out Kohli’s 39-ball 50 and Suresh Raina’s 33-ball 38, and MS Dhoni’s 18 off nine balls would not have amounted to much at all. The lack of authority from the batsman, bar Kohli, made for a distinctly sloppy batting display.
India were also undoubtedly assisted by Afghanistan’s lackluster fielding and a generous 16 wides from the bowlers. Kohli and Raina were dropped in the space of eight deliveries and Yuvraj was also put down by Mohammad Nabi, whose clanger to reprieve Raina was the sloppiest of all Afghanistan’s errors.
With the ball, India also lacked aggression at the top. Zaheer Khan went for 32 in three overs and Irfan Pathan offered too many four-balls. Afghanistan’s openers blazed away from the outset, with a stunning lash over midwicket by Mohammad Shahzad off Zaheer rattling the experienced bowler. There was a mighty heave for six over midwicket as well, and even the normally economical R Ashwin was not spared, with Karim Sadiq thumping the offspinner back over his head with disdain.
The early wickets came not through wicket-taking deliveries, but because of the Afghanistan batsmen's failure to curb their aggression. It was only when Yuvraj came into the attack that the ball started to look threatening, and his 3 for 24 was a big part of India’s success. Ashwin's three-run 17th over, in which he picked up the dangerous Mohammad Nabi, allowed India to breathe easier. And L Balaji, playing his first international match for over three-and-a-half-years, took a wicket in his first over and snuffed out the tail in his last for figures of 3 for 19 in 3.3 overs.
Dhoni's decision to give the ball to Rohit Sharma and Yuvraj inside ten overs and well before Ashwin was also worrying because it gave the feel that the Indian captain did not have faith in his strike bowlers; hence the need to keep Ashwin back for the death overs. Last week Dhoni spoke of how the part-timers were crucial for the team, but relying on Yuvraj and Rohit to pick early wickets is not indicative of match-winning team.
In short, this was not the sort of win you would expect from a side with aspirations of reclaiming the World Twenty20 title.