Sam Billings’s innings-reviving 93 paved the way for England’s winning start to their limited-overs tour of India despite Kuldeep Yadav’s commendable five-wicket haul in the first warm-up game at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai on Tuesday (January 10).
A strong opening stand between Jason Roy (62) and Alex Hales (40) laid down the marker for England’s run chase, but it was Billings’s partnerships with Jos Buttler and, more importantly, Liam Dawson that ensured they fully negated Kuldeep’s exploits and completed a three-wicket win.
The rumours of the warm-up game being a closed-door affair owing to security payment issue was swiftly put to bed as the crowd began to trickle through an hour before the start of play, in anticipation of watching stalwarts MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh ply their trade for India A. The chants for the celebrated pair began right from the pre-match practice session, but had to be kept on hold as Mandeep Singh and Shikhar Dhawan kick-started India A’s innings after Eoin Morgan opted to field.
David Willey and Chris Woakes made good use of the bounce and carry on offer early on to stifle the Indian openers at the start. Mandeep and Shikhar Dhawan bided their time on what appeared to be a track on the slower side. The latter, eyeing a comeback to the top of the limited-overs line-up, got going with a typical drive through covers off a full delivery from Woakes in the fifth over. Willey got a delivery to swing sharply into the right-handed Mandeep and knock back his stumps, as the right-handed opener failed to account for the movement and missed while trying to play a straight drive.
The wicket gave way for massive shouts of ‘Dhoni.. Dhoni’, albeit without reason, as Ambati Rayudu walked out to bat at No. 3. Rayudu and Dhawan nurdled around cautiously at the start of their 111-run partnership. For the thousands that had flocked the stadium, it was a drab affair, considering the home side were motoring along at a little more than three runs an over. For the likes of Dhawan, however, the game was about taking the opportunity and putting himself in the reckoning to start the ODI series as one of the openers. The southpaw did just that with a fluent half-century, which he brought up in the 27th over.
When he fell, for a 48-ball 56, in came Yuvraj, who was also welcome with much adulation from beyond the boundary. The left-hander struggled to read Adil Rashid at the start and was stung by the barrage of short-pitched bowling, but England’s erring length gave him the opportunity to settle down and make an impactful contribution. While the crowd cheered every run that came off Yuvraj’s willow, Rayudu at the other end was silently adding to his tally. The 31-year-old, who last featured for India in June 2016 on tour of Zimbabwe, maintained a brisk scoring rate all through his innings.
In the 41st over, Yuvraj got to his half-century, off just 41 balls, with his sixth boundary of the innings. In the same over, Rayudu completed his century and signalled to his dressing room that he was ready to make way for Dhoni by retiring out. The dwindling atmosphere at the Brabourne stadium picked up momentum as the captain made his way out to the middle. The Dhoni-Yuvraj combine would’ve made for a pulsating end to the Indian innings, but Yuvraj was consumed by a short delivery from Jake Ball for a 48-ball 56 in the 45th over. A brief break in play ensued when an intruder ran onto the pitch and towards Dhoni, shook hands with him, touched his feet and got escorted by policemen while the fans cheered him on.
While Yuvraj gave a solid audition for the No. 4 spot, it was down to Dhoni to make an impact in the finisher’s role to ease Virat Kohli’s headache ahead of the ODIs. Sanju Samson’s first-ball dismissal added to Dhoni’s workload, but the 35-year-old played with the sort of freedom that was expected of him following his recent decision to relinquish captaincy. Runs came at a fair clip and he appeased the vociferous crowd by getting to his half-century with a six over deep square leg off the first ball of the 50th over. The next five balls fetched 17 more runs as Dhoni hit two fours and a six to finish unbeaten on 68 off just 40 balls.
England enjoyed a contrasting start, as openers Jason Roy and Alex Hales compensated for the lack of runs off Hardik Pandya’s disciplined bowling, by taking apart Ashish Nehra and Mohit Sharma. Leg-break bowler Yuzvendra Chahal too didn’t have an easy initiation, as Roy showed a tendency to resort to a lot of sweeping. A reverse-sweep in the spinner’s second over earned Roy his half-century as the visitors looked settled and firmly in control of the run chase.
The first sign of trouble for England came only in the 15th over, when left-arm chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav arrived to bowl. Alex Hales survived a very close LBW call first ball while trying to sweep the spinner from the off-stump, but didn’t make the most of the reprieve. Two balls later, he slapped a shortish delivery towards Sanju Samson at short cover, who took a sharp, low catch. In his second over, Kuldeep then picked on Roy’s urge to sweep in the air, by tossing one up. The England opener took the bait and went for a big heave, but the extra bounce resulted in a thick top-edge which was expertly-taken by Mohit, who just about managed to cover ground and get under the ball. A show of incredible reflexes from Dhawan sent a stunned Morgan packing for 4, after the latter’s attempted reverse sweep was pouched at first slip, off Chahal.
Dhoni’s familiar spin choke for a brief period, since the fall of the first wicket, put a spanner in the works for England, who were cruising along till then. Buttler and Billings were forced to curb their flair for boundaries for a while, in order to prevent a complete collapse, and soon brought up their 50-run partnership.
The sparse crowd that remained in the stands got a chance to raise their voice again as Yuvraj was handed the ball. Buttler killed their intensity in getting behind the left-arm spinner, by carving two successive straight sixes off Yuvraj’s third over. A 69-run partnership between Buttler and Billings put England on course once again, before Dhoni sought Kuldeep’s expertise to change the course of the game for the second time in the innings.
Kuldeep thwarted England’s momentum with two wickets in the second over of his new spell. Buttler aimed to deposit another one in the stands, but could only get the bottom of his bat to a flighted ball outside the off-stump, hitting it straight to Mohit at long off. Kuldeep welcomed the left-handed Moeen Ali with an teasing tossed up delivery outside the off-stump, that beat Moeen’s attempted forward nudge. The very next ball, Kuldeep shifted his line towards the leg stump, inviting Moeen to go for an audacious sweep. The southpaw obliged, but missed and was adjudged LBW.
Even with five wickets down, England weren’t behind as far as the asking rate was concerned. One big, sensible partnership was all they needed to close down a well-fought game. Billings found company in young Dawson to plot such a match-defining stand, as the pair added 99 runs off 87 balls through a tense period when India A had their tails up. Neither batsmen let the situation get to their decision-making as far as their strokes were concerned, and calmly shifted the pressure back on the hosts by eating into the deficit. Kuldeep returned to complete a five-fer at the start of the 46th over, and Hardik lapped it up with Billings’s wicket in the 47th, but it wasn’t enough as Woakes and Rashid took the visitors past the finish line with seven balls to spare.
India A 304/5 in 50 overs (Ambati Rayudu 100, MS Dhoni 68*, Yuvraj Singh 56; David Willey 2-55, Jake Ball 2-61)
England 307/7 in 48.5 overs (Sam Billings 93, Jason Roy 62; Kuldeep Yadav 5-60) by 3 wickets.