Umran Malik, Shivam Mavi sparkle; Axar seals last-over thriller against Sri Lanka

Axar Patel grabbed the stumps and teed off before he was lost in an army of blue shirts piling excitedly on him. Just moments ago, he looked frazzled, when Chamika Karunaratne had heaved him for a six that had reduced the target to just five off three balls. But Axar would leak just two more runs to help India clinch the first of the three-match T20I series by two runs, a slow-burning thriller that caught fire at the end.

No matter what, it’s the end that is always remembered, the last over tattooed forever in your mind, irrespective of how good the start was or how middling the middle overs were. Axar, creditably, was at the end, during India’s batting as well as bowling. His 20-ball 31 runs, and the 68-run stand with Deepak Hooda, propelled India to a competitive 162; his smart bowling in the last over helped India defend the total, albeit nervously. Such impactful batting should push him for a spot of permanence even when Ravindra Jadeja returns, and even though his bowling on the night was wayward, he made amends in the last over.

But it’s the start they gave that made the end possible. As influential Axar was, the victory owed much to the pace trio of Hardik Pandya, Umran Malik and Shivam Mavi, whose bowling in the power-play, conceding just 35 runs, piling on the pressure and picking up two wickets, set the match up, and eventually proved an effort worth its weight in gold in the final assessment. When India began their defence, on a surface wherein Sri Lanka spinners turned the ball and made it grip off the surface, it seemed that their India counterparts would be the usual suspects to win them the match. In the end, they turned out to be side-shows, but for Axar’s last over.

Mumbai: Indian player Hardik Pandya with Axar Patel celebrates the wicket of Sri Lankan player Kasun Rajitha during the T20 cricket match between India and Sri Lanka at Wankhede Stadium, in Mumbai, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. (PTI Photo/Kunal Patil)

Few, then, would have punted on a debutant, a tearaway and a reluctant, oft-injured enforcer to lay the foundation for this win. The aforementioned trio—Shivam Mavi, Umran Malik and Hardik Pandya—is unlikely to trigger pregame panic in the mind of batsmen, but their combination of energy, pace, verve and smarts sufficed to dismantle Sri Lanka batsmen, in yet another parading of India’s dizzying fast bowling depth.

So many fast bowlers have flown in and out of the team in the last one year—in the pre T20 World Cup testing to post tournament rest and churn—that it’s at times difficult to nail down who indeed are the first-choice options. But this much is certain—in a full strength playing eleven, Pandya alone would have started, though it’s unlikely that he bowled three overs upfront with the new ball, nearly bowling himself out in the power-play overs. But his three thrifty overs that leaked just 12 runs, 18 balls of bark and bite, set the tone for India’s defence of 162 runs.

Unsurprisingly, in the absence of frontline pacers, Pandya took the new ball. He is often thrust with the middle and death over duties, where he has evolved into a back-of-length operator. But his reacquaintance with the new-ball was smooth. He bowled a fraction fuller than he usually does, purchased seam movement both ways and hassled batsmen with both pace and bounce. He was operating in a zone closer to peak Pandya that makes him such a potent proposition and escalates India’s threat by a few notches. He impressively shepherded the inexperienced pair of Mavi and Malik too.

Surprisingly, he tossed the ball to Mavi for the second over. It seemed his choice had backfired, for Kusal Mendis creamed him for a brace of boundaries. Mavi looked forlorn, like any debutant getting punished would. He gazed dejectedly onto the turf. At this point, Pandya wrapped an arm of comfort around him and managed to coax half a smile on his face. “I just told him to simply bowl. I told him, ‘I am backing you. Even if you get hit, it’s fine’,” Pandya recollected in the post-game chat.

Vindicating his captain’s faith, two balls later, Mavi produced a ripping in-swinger that sneaked through the defences of Nissanka. Mavi leapt and punched his hands in the air. He was to leap again in the next over. The pattern was similar, two fours, of two semi-loose balls, followed by a wilier, wicket-producing one. If the Nissanka ball was quicker with lavish inward movement, the Dhananjaya de Silva one was the exact opposite, slower and straighter. Perhaps conspired by the odd delivery gripping off the surface, the ball arrived a split-second slower than what de Silva had anticipated when he shaped for the flick. He would leap twice more, as he scripted a memorable debut. While he is not frighteningly fast, he is more of a nippy bowler, he can produce considerable seam movement into the right-hander and make the ball hold its line. He is still a study in progress, raw in several aspects, could be erratic at times but brings energy and composure into his bowling. Many other youngsters would have gone off-kilter after getting hit for successive fours in the first over, but he showed the steeliness to comeback and make the night memorable. Just 24, he could only get better with more exposure.

The graph could only keep rising for Malik too. He hustled and harried Sri Lanka’s batsmen, consistently stretching the speed guns to 150 and thereabouts. The ball that ended Dasun Shanaka’s counterattacking 45 clocked 155 kph. The one that nailed Charith Asalanka, though, was wickeder, as he hurried him into the pull and the ball kept climbing into him, cramping him for room. He would dexterously switch his length from full to short or short-of-length, giving India the hostile edge that was missing in the absence of Jasprit Bumrah.

It is presumptuous to judge that both Malik and Mavi are the future of India’s bowling in this format, but both furnished an exciting account of their craft. “It’s the young guys who got us back into the game,” Pandya said. In the end, it might be Axar’s last over that could be remembered as long as the match would be remembered. But it’s the start they gave that made the end possible.

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