From teetering on the edge of the cliff, India have crawled back to breathe again and take the series to the final game in Bangalore. Sizeable credit for the series-levelling 82-run victory in Rajkot goes to the unflustered big-hitting brilliance of Dinesh Karthik and Hardik Pandya, whose 65 runs in 5.3 overs propelled India to 169 runs on a tacky surface, as well as the synchronised utility of its bowling firm.
Give these set of bowlers conditions that remotely abet their craft, they make life impossibly difficult for overseas batsmen to live, let alone prosper. The surface was not as conducive to stroke-play as the other venues in this series. Some balls stopped, some skidded along, some just leapt off good-length areas. The bounce was spongy rather than a trampoline. Both seamers and spinners mixed their pace shrewdly, hammering out even a toehold of the advantage South Africa were trying to gain. The Indian bowlers just tied them in knots.
No hero emerged for South Africa. Quinton de Kock laboured on before he ran out, Temba Bavuma sustained a shoulder injury and retired hurt; Harshal Patel jetted out David Miller with a slippery ball; Yuzvendra Chahal exacted revenge on his tormenter, Heinrich Klaasen, with a straighter ball; Avesh Khan enjoyed his best night in international cricket with a four-wicket haul. They were bundled out for 87, just half as India had put on (169/7).
For India, there were several heroes. Foremost among them was Dinesh Karthik, whose 27-ball 55 conveyed an impression that he alone batted on a different pitch. He certainly batted on a different plane, batting fluently on a surface where most batters consistently struggled to time the ball and find the boundary.
The background was perfect for him to flourish—team reeling, series at stake, last of the specialist batsmen, it was the time to not only play a winning hand but also make him an indispensable player in the side. In his prime, he had let golden opportunities slip through, but at 36, probably at the last stretch of his career, he is desperately making even half an opportunity count.
Count he did, with a knock of inscrutable coolness and sparkling stroke-play.
Amidst the reverse pulls and sweeps, the sheer wattage of destruction Karthik ratcheted up, a straight drive stood out. South Africa’s left-handed spinner Keshav Maharaj, after he was fiercely swept through midwicket, seared one onto his pads. Karthik could have bent low and swirled his wrists over the ball and whirled it over long-on. His design seemed just that, before at the last moment, he changed his mind, as if suddenly seized bound by classical batsmanship. He just pressed his front-foot forth and drove the ball between the bowler and the long-on fielder, aerial but a stroke of pure, pristine timing. For this stroke alone, he kept the pose, the front-elbow winking at the inky sky, the bat-maker’s name proudly staring at the audience after tracing a delightful arc.
He struck eight other boundaries and a brace of sixes to complete his maiden T20 international half-century and propel India to a competent score, but a photograph of this stroke is the likeliest to adorn the walls of his drawing-room. This stroke held the breath; most others rushed the blood. Karthik was in full flow, the currents lashing furiously like a river in monsoon. There was a swept-six of Dwaine Pretorius, wherein he simply walked outside the off-stump and whacked the ball over deep midwicket. Fast feet, faster hands and even faster brains. The ball was not too full for the slog, but he hyperextended his bat, got under the ball and heaved it over the drops.
In such a mood for carnage, he could be unstoppable. His range of strokes—and as importantly his eye for boundaries—is astounding. Anything even marginally shot, he moves back with the rapidness of an electric wave, and cuts, often in front of square. Anything full, he has the whole canvas to find a boundary. The ball could vanish into any corner of the field. Length balls could disappear over deep square leg; he could reverse pull, reverse sweep, and if need be, ramp and scoop (there was no need for such improvisation). He manufactures the lengths that suit him, like sashaying down the track and pummelling Andre Nortje down the ground. The shot, his second boundary, rattled the strapping South African seamer. Perhaps the entire team too, as they suddenly looked deflated, and let the game drift away from them in the next 30 minutes or so.
That was the precise moment South Africa would rue, after the penetration and planning they showed in the early exchanges. Until then, they had bottlenecked the hosts and chipped away with wickets, the last being Rishabh Pant. India were, at this juncture, 81 for 4 in 13 overs, having already lost Ishan Kishan, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Shreyas Iyer. Escalating their woes, Hardik Pandya too had hit the straps with a few lusty blows, the trademark back-cuts and flick-slogs, where he wrists the ball at the final moment of contact, making the crowd erupt in joy. This burst of boundaries made all the difference—from teetering on the edge of the cliff to taking the series to the last match in Bangalore.