Khaleel Ahmed was impressive with the ball in his maiden international outing. Photo: AFP
That first impressions are phoney was never more obvious in cricket than at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, where Hong Kong gave a refreshingly different account of themselves against India than they did against Pakistan. On Tuesday (September 18), Hong Kong didn't just restrict India to 285 amidst talks of a statistician's pandemonium, thanks to Anshuman Rath opting to bowl under unforgiving sun, but also put up an unbelievable 174 runs for the first wicket, before India came storming back with a barrage of wickets to seal a victory by 26 runs.
The opening stand of 174 runs between Anshuman Rath and Nizakat Khan was Hong Kong's best ever partnership in One-Day Internationals, and it was superbly orchestrated by Nizakat, who laid into India's pace bowling trio of debutant Khaleel Ahmed, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Shardul Thakur early to get Hong Kong off to a rollicking start -- when few expected them to.
Without an over of spin to face, Hong Kong's openers tallied 56 runs in the first ten overs. Yuzvendra Chahal, coming on to bowl in the eleventh, was no relief given how well set Nizakat and Anshuman were by then on an admittedly slow pitch assisting little turn with the newish ball. Rohit's decision to stick with Shardul's pace from the other immediately cost India, the bowler conceding 17 runs in the twelfth over to deliver Nizakat to his fifty. His final figures: 4-0-41-0.
Kuldeep Yadav snapped Hong Kong's record 174-run opening stand, which had stuttered towards the end against India's spin triumvirate: Chahal, Kedar Jadhav and Kuldeep himself drying the runs out. Once Anshuman was caught at cover to give India its first wicket of the tournament, Khaleel Ahmed removed Nizakat on 92 in the next over to register his maiden ODI wicket. With the openers gone, India had an opening and Chahal dived right in, picking the wickets of Babar Hayat, Kinchit Shah and Aizaz Khan in quick time.
India were shoddy in the field, looking like a jaded side that's in the middle of too much cricket too often. Benching of England series regulars like Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul left India bereft of experience (and skill) in both bowling and batting, latter manifesting as a middle-order meltdown that saw India lose three wickets for eight runs earlier in the day. It was Shikhar Dhawan's superlative 127 off 120 balls that had set India up for a target that could make a match out of the encounter.
That India even got to 285 is mainly due to Dhawan's brilliant innings, the opener compensating for a rather cold ODI series in England. He hit 15 fours and 2 sixes before losing his wicket to Kinchit Shah in the 41st over. Batting without a helmet against the pacers, Dhawan was confidence personified as he drove India towards what then looked like an intimidating total.
But for Dhawan's hundred and Jadhav's run-a-ball rescue act towards the end of first innings, India's lack of a power-hitter down the order was very obvious. MS Dhoni perished to Ehsan Khan's spin on nought, meaning the top three consisting of Rohit (23 off 22), Dhawan (127 off 120) and Ambati Rayudu (60 off 70) scored 210 out of the 285 India made. Top-heavy scoring isn't alien to ODIs but for India nowadays, it feels like the only way.
Rohit perished to Ehsan Khan in the first over of spin India encountered, and Rayudu, batting at No.3 in his comeback game, found it difficult to get a move on, hitting his first boundary off the 38th ball he faced -- such was Hong Kong's persistence. It did help that Dhawan scored with ease at the other end, so much so that he could afford himself a tired shot on 127, terminally top-edging a wide slash.
Kinchit Shah and Ehsan Khan shared five wickets between them, allowing India only 48 runs in the last ten overs in a loud vindication of their true selves and of India's growing deficiencies against spin. That might win Hong Kong a game against India someday but it wasn't today.
Brief Scores: India 285/7 in 50 overs (Shikhar Dhawan 127, Ambati Rayudu 60; Kinchit Shah 3-39, Ehsan Khan 2-65) beat Hong Kong 259/8 in 50 overs (Nizakat Khan 92, Anshuman Rath 73; Yuzvendra Chahal 3-46, Khaleel Ahmed 3-48) by 26 runs.