How well can a captain plan his bowling strategies for an eight-over match? How often does a captain or coach say a total of 67 was two runs over par in an eight-over match against a line-up that had outclassed their bowling in the previous T20? How do you make sure that you plan well, for starters, and then your bowlers execute things exactly how they should be?
During the third T20I in Thiruvananthapuram, it was difficult to gauge what a safe or strong target would be. The pitch was new and damp, the ball was misbehaving, as shown by the turn and the cutters, but at the same time eight overs may give you the feeling that any total might be small. This Indian team, though, can hardly be considered out of the match while defending a total until the last ball has been bowled or the winning runs have been hit.
It was on display during the deciding Kanpur ODI when they were defending 337 and New Zealand were on track to scale the target, but Jasprit Bumrah and Yuzvendra Chahal pulled things back with their accuracy and wicket-taking ability under pressure. On Tuesday night too, the two bowlers stepped up when the margins of error were just as fine.
Bumrah had seen an in-form Colin Munro dispatch his first ball of the match, off Bhuvneshwar Kumar, into the stands. Bumrah, though, seems almost unperturbed by any kind of pressure when he gets the ball in hand. "If you think about pressure, you won't be able to deliver," he said after the match.
Both Bumrah and Chahal outsmarted the batsmen on Tuesday, helped by the fact that their captain and coach showed immense confidence in them at the halfway stage. Such was their belief in the bowlers, Virat Kohli stated after the match they were "quite happy" with what they were defending and Ravi Shastri said they had "aimed for 65" and anything more was a bonus.
Bumrah and Chahal exhibited their skills to prove the two leaders right. Bumrah started by using the angle and short-of-length deliveries against Munro and ended his second over by bowling one slower delivery after another to tighten the noose around the batsmen. Chahal bowled back-of-length deliveries too, not offering any flight and reducing the time batsmen would have to get under or on top of the ball. Between them they bowled 14 dots out of 24. New Zealand had bowled only four more dots in their entire eight overs.
It has been this capability of the bowlers and the faith imposed in them that has allowed India the ability to fight back from some losing positons or even defend totals against strong batting line-ups in the last few months. That is what makes their series wins against Australia and New Zealand in limited-overs cricket this home season. In limited-overs matches since the Champions Trophy, India have lost only three of the 11 completed matches in which they batted first - the only T20 in the West Indies, the second T20 against Australia in Guwahati, and the first ODI against New Zealand in Mumbai.
"It feels wonderful," Kohli said about his bowlers' performances in the recent series. "They deserve a lot more credit than they usually get otherwise. The game has moved forward as a batsman's game, the shorter formats. When the bowlers step up in the deciding games, that becomes the difference. If you see both teams got close to their totals, but it was the bowling side who did better and won the game. The game has boiled down to basically be that. If the wicket is not offering much to the bowlers, the team that bowls better usually wins it.
"Our bowlers have shown better nerves in tough situations, better than the oppositions for a while now. That is something that makes me very proud, and they are also very pleased with their efforts and execution of plans. We are quite confident where we stand as a team, and as a bowling unit they definitely deserve a lot more credit for winning these past few series that they have, than they get usually. Big congratulations to them and hats off to the way they have bowled."
Apart from feeling lucky to have such bowlers, Kohli himself has ensured the right bowler is used at the right time. On Tuesday, New Zealand must have known that half of India's overs would be bowled by Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar together, but Kohli showed he was not rigid. Unlike he has done almost always in the past, Kohli didn't save them for the end. He bowled Bhuvneshwar out by the halfway mark, and gave Bumrah the penultimate over instead of the last so that India's top two bowlers would stifle the batsmen in the middle and the asking rate would shoot up at the end. He then handed the last over to Hardik Pandya, having ensured that he had a cushion of 19 runs.
"We have developed some good habits in recent times and it's important that we continue that," Kohli said. "Especially, in games like this it feels even better that we've been able to execute our plans. To do so in a decider game and to execute that so well [is great]. Our bowlers did a great job and didn't give too many boundary balls, that made the difference in the end. We wanted our best bowlers to get done early so that they (New Zealand) would have to score a lot in the end.
"We had the confidence in Hardik, whose offcutters are very effective. And the wicket was very damp tonight, so the ball was sticking to the wicket. They (bowlers) also executed the plans well. It is important to give them confidence as well. I was going up to Pandya but he himself said, 'I'll do it, you don't have to worry.' As a captain, when you get that kind of confidence from your bowlers, you aren't left with much to say. He showed the confidence in his abilities and he finished off the game well."
Kohli will probably agree with Pakistan's Azhar Mahmood who recently said, "batsmen win you games, bowlers win you tournaments". In recent times, Kohli's bowlers have helped him win six limited-overs matches in Sri Lanka, five out of the seven against Australia at home, and another four out of six against New Zealand, taking the series tally to five (the T20 series tied against Australia) in less than three months.
These bowlers can now bask in the glory they have attained for themselves as the Test line-up will take over in a week against Sri Lanka and the next limited-overs matches are still more than a month away.