Two teams which could have missed making the World Cup semifinals are in the final. And India are responsible for one of them moving up. India’s loss to England, their only defeat in the league phase, helped the eventual finalists ensure their semifinal berth. Having lost to Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Australia, the home team were in danger being knocked out. But they survived and are in the final after 27 years, aspiring to be first-time champions.
Pre-tournament wagers were on an England-India final. The two sides remained very much on course, with South Africa making sure that the two did not play in the semifinals, by stunning Australia. The semifinal spots went to the top four in ICC rankings, though another sub-continental team would have made it evenly balanced.
Pakistan were nudged out by New Zealand on superior net run rate. Though many Pakistanis, including some former players, held it against India for losing to England, their captain like a good sport refused to believe that India lost deliberately. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also entertained hopes, though they were depending on other results a little more. Both India and Australia lost out in the knockout round in a similar manner; in the first half an hour or so when their top-order caved in.
With a brittle middle-order and a rampaging top-three, many in India saw the failure of the latter coming at Old Trafford. After such a wonderful run to the semifinal, there were fears along with hopes when Virat Kohli went out to for the toss with Kane Williamson. He lost and his team had to field. The next fear was the ideal target to chase. It had to be around 250. India bowled and fielded well to keep New Zealand down to 211/5 in 46.1 overs when a downpour left them in trouble. If the play had resumed, they would have had to play a 20-over lottery and score 148 to win the game.
The match spilled over into the reserve day, and India did not allow New Zealand to run away with more than what they actually got. The only problem was India had to bat on a pitch freshened up a bit by the rain. If the match had been uninterrupted and India had batted the previous afternoon, conditions would have been a lot different and Indian batsmen may have tackled New Zealand pacers differently.
Once the pitch dried out, India batsmen found it easy to come into the line of the ball to hit it. Not exactly the middle-order, but the lower order; to be precise, MS Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja. That showed their top-order batsmen they could have won the match comfortably with a little bit of application. New Zealand knew the only way they could win was by attacking India’s top-order. As luck would have it, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Kohli were dismissed inside five overs to some inspired bowling, with the ball doing just what was required under the circumstances.
That can’t be an excuse for India. New Zealand were also in trouble as Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah bowled superbly, but they got to 162/4 by the 41st over, whereas India were 24/4 by the 10th. While New Zealand’slower-order did not have to do as much as the Indians had to, they had Ross Taylor still around. Like Taylor, the much-maligned Dhoni was there holding one end up. He always bats with a lot of thought and imagination, keeping an eye on various options. Dhoni also had the experienced Jadeja with him, making things a lot easier than batting with Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya. It’s one of those things that he got run out just when he was about to launch into his familiar death-overs slog.
There was fear that Pant and Pandya would risk their wickets. Both went for big shots, one against the turn and the other going for a pre-meditated loft. They should look at the way Jadeja batted: with so much common sense. Whether it was an answer to Sanjay Manjrekar’s jibe of “bits-and-pieces” or just to prove a point, Jadeja showed he has the temperament and technique to bat as well as any who preceded him in the middle-order.
(The writer is a veteran commentator and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)