For anybody who may have had misgivings about India’s chances to defend their Champions Trophy crown after their thorough defeat to Sri Lanka in the previous match, the performance of the Men in Blue against South Africa at The Oval on Sunday was utterly reassuring.
The constricted nature of the tournament resulted in India being pushed to a bit of a corner after the slip up against the Lankans, and made the match against South Africa a virtual knockout. But on Sunday, Virat Kohli’s boys came out with the fury of a cornered tiger and absolutely devoured the Proteas, storming into the semi-finals in the process.
There would naturally be some celebration, and hours would be devoted to discussing what a clinical, all-round show it was by India. After all, it is not always that you see such domination by a team in all departments of the game, and except perhaps Hardik Pandya dropping Hashim Amla, and a rare missed stumping by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, there was nothing which the Indian team could be criticised on. A complete demolition job by the Indians.
However, the match need not have been as one-sided as it turned out to be. There were moments in the match when South Africa could have broken through and pressed home the advantage, there were moments when the sparring was pretty even. Those were the key points that were to be won, and if we get down to the brass tacks of India’s victory, that is where India forged ahead, doing the right things at just the right time. That is how Kohli and Co built a grand narrative: by stitching together small anecdotes. That is how they built the mighty ocean: by collecting little drops of water.
In Tests, one may have heard about the importance of taking the match session by session and looking to win each one of them, instead to going in with a grandiose, macro outlook, planning for all the five days at the very outset. It is not too different in limited overs cricket as well.
Which were the moments in Sunday’s match, therefore, dominating which paved the way for India’s victory overall?
The South African openers, Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock, had made a slow, but steady start, adding 76 runs for the first wicket. We are all aware of the damage both those batsmen can inflict on the bowlers and Amla was fresh from a century in the Proteas’ first match of the tournament, against Sri Lanka. And the Amla-de Kock partnership was just showing signs of blossoming.
In came Ravichandran Ashwin, playing his first match of the tournament this year, to bowl the 18th over of the South African innings. The first ball was a wide and the next ball was dispatched to the long off fence by Amla. But then, the ace off-spinner had the last laugh. He bowled one just wide and bowled it quicker. The ball skidded through and bounced more than Amla expected, taking the edge of the bat with Dhoni completing the catch behind the stumps. A well-planned dismissal and a smart catch by Dhoni too. Those were the first points in the bag for India.
Soon de Kock was also dismissed, falling shortly after getting to his fifty. Usually, once he gets to a fifty against India, he doesn't stop before a hundred — he has already hit five centuries against them. But again, India saw the back of him precisely at the right time.
However, the biggest little victory for India was when the South African captain and batting maestro AB de Villiers fell to some brilliant work on the field by Pandya and Dhoni. De Villiers perhaps helped India's cause by attempting a run that he would have been well advised not to, but his wicket just when he was starting to look dangerous was a massive boost for India.
It was a procession thereafter as South Africa lost their remaining seven wickets for a mere 51 more runs. Bundling out the Proteas for under 200 meant that at the innings break, India were firmly in the driver’s seat, having dominated all the crucial parts of the play till then.
There was another moment of reckoning for the Men in Blue during their innings when it was their turn to bat. Rohit Sharma created just a bit of flutter in the Indian camp by throwing his wicket away with an atrocious shot. An early wicket invariably puts pressure on the batting team and with the in-form Rohit departing as early as the sixth over, South Africa had a slim opening.
Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, however, settled down in the middle and nullified every weapon that the South Africans hurled at them, and then went on the offensive once the bowlers started to tire. A few quick wickets at that stage could have thrown the match wide open, but Dhawan and Kohli ensured nothing of that sort happened. That was another key, another small battle won by India.
In the end, it was really a stroll in the park for the Indians. Dhawan is in the middle of a purple patch with scores of 68, 125 and 78 in the tournament so far. His half-century on Sunday made him the first Indian batsman to score a hat-trick of fifties in the Champions Trophy. He may not have had a great time over the past year or so, but put him in a Champions Trophy, and nine times out of ten, he will deliver. He is also now the fastest to 1,000 runs in ICC one-day international tournaments.
Kohli, at the other end, played some breathtaking strokes on his way to an unbeaten 76 to go with his 81 not out against Pakistan in the first match and those are ominous signs for the opposition bowlers.
If India can maintain this form, there will not be too many teams that can stop them from going all the way. They looked like a well-oiled machine against South Africa and significantly, they brought out their A-game when it was required the most, winning the parts before pocketing the whole.