Anomaly. Upset. Aberration.
As Angelo Mathews pulled Umesh Yadav behind square to complete a memorable victory for Sri Lanka over India in the 2017 Champions Trophy, those were the words that immediately came to mind. The islanders not only chased down the mammoth 322-run target, they did so without breaking a sweat, and with plenty of fuel still in the tank. A thorough defeat, therefore, for India.
But that was not according to script, was it? In fact, what played out at The Oval on Thursday could not have been farther away from it.
India, the defending champions and one of the pre-tournament favourites, had started their campaign with the annihilation of arch-rivals Pakistan, and were expected to make short work of a Sri Lankan side devoid of big names (except of course, Lasith Malinga), and generally lacking the aura of the Sanath Jayasuriyas, Muttiah Muralitharans and Kumar Sangakkaras. It was a Sri Lankan side that had imploded against South Africa in their previous match, and what’s more, their prime weapon, Malinga, for all his menace, had never had the better of the Indians to any fathomable degree.
Sri Lanka, therefore, was not seen to pose much of a threat. This feeling gained traction after India posted a score in excess of 300. However, Sri Lanka turned the tables on India, winning almost in the same emphatic manner that Indian fans had grown accustomed to seeing their team winning.
Virat Kohli and Co were handed a sobering loss and presented with a treasure trove of lessons, the foremost being that in a big-ticket tournament like the Champions Trophy, comprising the creme de la creme of the cricketing world, complacency can be fatal. India may have been a little smug after their resounding win over Pakistan and the hype created around them. If that had been the case, this loss will re-introduce them to reality and compel them to take guard afresh.
The Champions Trophy is a pretty constricted competition and there is usually not a lot of opportunity to dust yourself up after a fall, but still, the defeat to Sri Lanka has come at a stage when you could still afford a slip up. But rest assured, it is all that India can afford.
The result on Thursday, coupled with Pakistan beating the much-fancied South Africa the day before, means that the match against the Proteas is now a knockout for India.
The loss has made the road ahead for Virat Kohli and Co just a bit bumpy. It has also given them plenty of food for thought.
Would they, for instance, still want to continue with the four-pacer strategy? Hardik Pandya can indeed hit a ball long and get the team quick 20-30 runs at the fag end of an innings, as he showed against Pakistan last Sunday and in the Indian Premier League (IPL) before that, and those runs are priceless whether you are setting a target, or chasing one down.
But as the fourth pacer, he has been a bit on the expensive side, which really offsets the runs he scores. On Thursday too, he was taken for 51 runs off his seven overs. Is the Indian team management ready to ignore the runs he has been conceding, in favour of the runs he has been scoring? Is it a profitable bargain? Should Ravichandran Ashwin be drafted in instead? The ace off-spinner can use the long handle to good effect too and can be considered in Hardik’s place.
Then again, should Ashwin be brought in place of his spin twin and fellow all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, who has had a pretty ordinary tournament so far with the ball? That would not tinker with the four-pacer strategy, but leaving out Jadeja would mean missing his fielding prowess.
India’s fielding, both against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has been sloppy. Catches have been dropped and easy runs have been conceded. It really looks like the players are yet to get over the butterfingers syndrome that they had been afflicted by in the IPL. But surely, it is an area which India drastically need to improve on if they are to have any hopes of defending their crown.
That being the case, would the team management be ready to bench Jadeja, who can turn a match with a moment of brilliance on the field, as he did by running out the experienced Shoaib Malik in the match against Pakistan?
Would the Indian openers continue with the strategy of getting their eye in before expressing themselves, as they have done in the two matches so far? Is it a worthwhile strategy, even when the pitch was a belter as the one at The Oval against Sri Lanka? Does that safety-first approach at the start put pressure on the batsmen in the latter half of the innings?
These are the questions that the Indian think tank must answer, and if they can find the right answers, there is no reason why India can’t make this edition of the Champions Trophy their own.
The loss to Sri Lanka was not a fatal blow, but an eye-opener, a wake-up call. It was India’s last and only opportunity to have an off-day, make mistakes and learn from them. India would hope they have now gotten rid of the customary ‘bad day in office’. In many ways, therefore, the loss on Thursday was a blessing in disguise for Kohli’s men.
It is worth pointing out that in two of the ICC tournaments that India had won recently — the 2007 World T20 and 2011 World Cup — they had suffered early reverses, but composed themselves thereafter and went all the way.
The tied match against England and loss to South Africa in the 2011 World Cup still gave them ample time to recover, considering the length of the tournament, but one would remember, following the loss to New Zealand in the inaugural World T20 in 2007, every match became virtually a must-win encounter for India. And yet Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side delivered, and did so in grand style.
India have to take heart from those victories against the odds and shrug off Thursday’s loss as an one-off event, while not forgetting to find solutions to the problems it had thrown up, while there is still time.
Calling Sri Lanka’s win an anomaly, however, will imply a reluctance to appreciate the effort put in by Kusal Mendis, Danushka Gunathilaka and Co. It would also point to a reluctance to shed the superiority complex that is a massive hindrance in the pursuit of course correction. That is what Kohli and Co have to guard against.