Nagpur: The tricolour was out in full force, two giant flags being waved incessantly in the stands just outside the dressing room during the course of the team’s fielding session on the lush, green outfield. There was music in the air, a party-like atmosphere, but nobody on the park seemed to be paying any attention to the goings-on beyond their immediate vicinity.
It is this bubble that India would love to remain in for the next three and a half weeks. The burden of expectation when India plays any team anywhere in the world is immense. When it plays at home, and that too in an event of the magnitude of the ICC World Twenty20, that pressure multiplies manifold, making demands not just on the players’ unquestioned skills but also on their ability to exclude all extraneous factors from their preparatory drills.
India will seek to use the VCA Stadium in Jamtha as the springboard from which to launch its campaign for a second ICC World T20 crown. It doesn't have particularly fond memories of this ground as a limited-overs venue, but one of the challenges of international sport is to remain in the present. India can ill afford to reflect on the fact that its only defeat on the way to the 50-over ICC World Cup title in 2011 came at this venue, or that its only Twenty20 International to date here ended in Sri Lanka’s favour.
Up against Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side in the opening Super 10s match of the tournament on Tuesday (March 15) night is a side that has won all four T20I head-to-heads between the two teams. New Zealand was the only team that, briefly, halted the Indian juggernaut at the 2007 ICC World T20 in South Africa, and has imposed a serious stranglehold over the Indians in the 20-over game, but while that might instil a mild feel-good factor, New Zealand will be the first to acknowledge that that is hardly a guarantee for a fifth straight victory.
New Zealand isn't so much a team in transition as a well-oiled machine that just has a new hand at the helm. Kane Williamson has been groomed for captaincy almost from the time he made his international debut more than five seasons ago, and while he could have done with a less demanding first assignment as skipper, there is no denying the fact that he is ready to step into the giant breach caused by the retirement last month of Brendon McCullum.
Under McCullum, New Zealand played a brand of fearless, entertaining, positive, clean cricket that won it not just hearts but plenty of matches too. Williamson will in time to come carve his own leadership niche; for now, he will in all likelihood look to extend the McCullum way both because it has been successful and because this isn’t quite the stage on which to start to build one’s own legacy.
New Zealand will miss McCullum, of that there is little doubt. Not only because of the explosive starts he provided with an intrepidness that doesn’t always sit lightly on the experienced. Not only because of his electric fielding that belied his primary original vocation as a wicketkeeper. Not only because he played the game with a smile on his lips and a song in his heart. On the field and off it, he symbolised the New Zealand way of life and debunked the myth that nice guys don’t finish first. His mercurial batting and his inspirational leadership is, however, a thing of the past, which is something New Zealand has had a little bit of time to digest and get used to.
Even without McCullum, there is a wealth of batting firepower in the Kiwi ranks designed to test the best in the business. Martin Guptill has been in rip-roaring form, Colin Munro has hit a purple patch, Corey Anderson is as dynamic as they come, Mitchell Santner is making rapid strides, Grant Elliott and Ross Taylor provide the solidity and the backbone, and Williamson himself is a silken-smooth timer of the ball and the latest in an illustrious list that keeps proving that there is a place for the orthodox even in the frenetic bustle of 20-over cricket.
Even though, without McCullum, the line-up doesn’t have the same aura, India’s multi-pronged bowling attack that has shown remarkable teeth in recent times will know that it has a fight on its hands. And it is the progress of this bowling attack in the last month and a half that is responsible for India quickly graduating from a hopeful because it is playing in its backyard to one of the strong favourites to go all the way in the tournament.
The return after four and a half years in the wilderness of Ashish Nehra, the felicity with which Jasprit Bumrah has taken to international cricket, and the all-round nous and value that Hardik Pandya brings are no accidental shots in the dark. Beaten by a mile at home by South Africa in October last year when its bowling showed neither guile nor discipline, India realised that unless they shook things up, there was little to look forward to at the ICC World T20 2016.
Hence the recall for Nehra, the hastening of Bumrah’s climb and the well-considered Pandya punt. Each of these moves has worked wonders, allowing Dhoni the luxury of a bowling unit that isn’t only about R Ashwin and the rest anymore. Ashwin is obviously the most proactive and dangerous of the Indian bowlers, and will be a handful no matter the nature of the surface, but the offspinner isn’t a lone ranger any longer. That has made the task of Dhoni the captain easier; it has also ensured that the batting line-up with Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli at the forefront no longer has to look over its shoulder and overreach itself in a bid to make up for the lightness in the bowling.
India has won ten of its last 11 T20I games, results accrued because the sum of the parts have ticked over nicely. At home, egged on by buzzing crowds that almost invariably act as the unofficial 12th man, the team will be a rolling stone looking to gather momentum. New Zealand will stand firm, it won’t be intimidated or accommodating. The home team against the side it has never beaten in this format. Couldn’t have asked for a better start to the Super 10s.