Let this be said out upfront that India’s best chance of beating Australia in the second semi-final of the 2015 ODI World Cup in Sydney was in batting first. Putting up 300-plus on the board and then put the hosts under pressure. On a placid pitch with very slow turn, they needed to win the toss in order to do so. They didn’t.
Even if they had, would India have breached the 300-mark? The thought is mere conjecture at this point in time, but traversing upwards from their batting order, the form of their players would suggest otherwise. The tail hadn’t been called into service this entire tournament, and given their misadventures in December-January, it can be said that they wouldn’t have been of much use.
The lower order suffered with Ravindra Jadeja at number seven and R Ashwin at number eight, the latter perhaps batting lower than he should have. But Jadeja’s hitting prowess won him that spot ahead of Ashwin, even though the promised runs never came (no, the 23* against Bangladesh doesn’t really count!).
Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni had been in decent form off-late, starting from the Zimbabwe game in Auckland, but for them to go into attack mode, the top-order needed to fire heavily. And that is where India failed to get going in their chase, as they would possibly have had they batted first.
Virat Kohli was very scratchy in his 13-ball stay, and no, his girlfriend’s presence isn’t the factor. It is because he hasn’t had one proper knock in the middle since he scored that hundred against Pakistan in Adelaide, a full six weeks ago.
Following that 107, he had scores of 46, 33*, 33, 44*, 38 and 3, before this 1-run scored in Sydney. The patchiness of his tournament’s progression is there for everyone to see. You don’t come into a big game and chase down 300-plus easily without having momentum behind your blade. It is a similar story for Ajinkya Rahane who played a magical knock against South Africa, but couldn’t replicate his success at number four afterwards. Before his grinding 44 runs against Australia, he had only scored 19, 19, 33* and 14. When your number three and four are not firing, what hope does the team have?
It put the onus on two in form players in this batting line-up then. Shikhar Dhawan has had a wonderful tournament, in terms of runs and confidence, while Rohit Sharma has been in good touch recently. They both got early reprieves from Brad Haddin’s drop and Shane Watson’s botched attempt to catch at first slip. Then they put on 76 runs on the board. By the time it read 91, both were gone, along with Kohli. One of the openers needed to go big, either Rohit or Dhawan, both.
The left-hander paid the price of being too belligerent. He was going easily, smacking boundaries at will, a couple of them quite exhilarating to watch. That cut-shot straight down to deep cover was a bit unnecessary at that stage, as both the situation and required run-rate were under control. But that is what comes with a player like Dhawan, that urge of wanting to explode instantaneously when the ball is slightest on offer. As such Rohit was definitely the one for the long stay, and he showed a glimpse of what he could have done, taking the fight to Mitchell Johnson. It was the bowler’s day though.
Two big wickets came for him after a listless summer against India earlier, yet he had done more damage with bat in hand. That chancy little cameo he played when Australia were struggling to get past the all-important 300-number changed the game. In a big semi-final, chasing under pressure, that is still the psychological barrier teams look to cross in order to get an advantage. The Indian team batsmen would have been in a different frame of mind had they been chasing 280/290-odd. Just the other figure plays a significant role inside your brain out there in the middle.
Considering Australia were restricted to under-330 then, it was a major effort from the Indian bowlers to pull things back. At one point in time, with Aaron Finch grinding his way back to form and Steve Smith in this pristine form smacking everything, 380 looked achievable. There was even a talk about 400 in some hushed up quarters of the press box, but they were silenced by a middle-order collapse.
R Ashwin proved his mettle once again and showed the value of learning from past experience. Having played here in 2011-12, and after suffering the hurt of sitting out for much of the overseas calendar year, he hasn’t looked back since his re-introduction into the playing eleven in Brisbane. His marked improvement in accuracy, as well regaining his flight and control, with his bag of clever variations, should make him a big challenge in the years to come. On an individual level, this is the biggest gain from this World Cup.
On a collective level, India’s fast bowlers have shown what they can do. Their waywardness from the Australian tour will be consigned to the dustbin and this brilliant effort of 77 out of possible 80 wickets in eight matches will live long in the average Indian fan’s memory. While there will be some cherishment that their bowlers can indeed put the opposition in a quandary, it will only heap more pressure on the bowlers as a whole.
A repetition of this performance will be expected every time Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma are handed the ball. Success is a dual-edged sword and they will find out soon enough, if they haven’t already, being Indian cricketers.