If there is one facet about India’s play in this edition of the Champions’ Trophy that merits comment, it is the gradual elimination of error.
The defending champions came into this tournament woefully short of match practice. India had not played an ODI in anger since the January bilateral against England. The players had spent the intervening period playing the IPL, and for all of captain Virat Kohli’s sanguine comments that the IPL was good prep for the CT, the fact is, it was not.
There is a fundamental difference in how you bat when you know your eleven batting resources need to last only for 20 overs, and when you have to stretch them across 50. Similarly, it is one thing to bowl two overs at the top of the PowerPlays in a T20 game and go off before batsmen have settled against you, versus having to bowl extended spells of five, six overs at a stretch giving batsmen sufficient time to work out your lines and lengths and movement and find ways of countering you.
So, for all that India had two handy wins in the warm-up games and started the tournament proper with a trouncing of Pakistan, there was an undercooked feel to the side – exacerbated by the fact that the swing and seam expected in English conditions had gone AWOL this year.
India thus had the feel of a side searching for combinations, for plans, for proper disciplines. To its credit, though, it didn’t coast; instead, the team learnt as much from its defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka as from its decimation of Pakistan, and used those games to find its best combinations, while making some hard choices along the way.
Elimination of error was the leitmotif of its game against South Africa. In opting to bring Ashwin into the side at the expense of the impressive Umesh Yadav, it made a tough but essentially right call. In giving Jasprit Bumrah the new ball despite two fairly ordinary games preceding, and in backing Hardik Pandya to play the third seamer’s critical role in the middle overs, it trusted young players with serious responsibilities, and backed them to deliver.
Most crucially, the team worked out that there was no lateral movement to be had, and after the defeat by Sri Lanka, revised its bowling plans. In the first two league games, the Indian quicks had bowled fourth and fifth stump lines, looking for edges. Lack of movement in the air and off the seam meant they found none; the wide lines therefore translated into space for the opposing batsmen, and India went for 51 in the powerplay against Pakistan, 44 against Sri Lanka.
Against South Africa, their plans were noticeably, radically, different. The lines targeted the stumps relentlessly; the bowlers took to going wider of the bowling crease and angling sharply in. In tandem, these two changes denied width, cramped batsmen for room and forced them to play straighter – only to be stymied by a ring of gun fielders drawn well inside the 30-yard line. There were no freebies, no fours into vacant space (consider that South Africa managed only 11 fours and a solitary six in its entire innings).
It was a textbook example of formulating, and then executing, strategies to fit conditions. It relied on the total elimination of error by the bowlers. India proved itself capable of coming up with a Plan B where the earlier plan had proved inadequate – the fundamental difference between it and, say, the much-fancied England and South Africa.
It’s semi-final opponent Bangladesh is a dangerous opponent; because it has nothing to lose, Bangladesh has everything to gain. But India go in to the crucial tie knowing it has all its ducks nicely lined up. The three seamers have worked out their best lines and tactics and field-tested them against a strong batting unit. The two spinners have gotten back to their old ways of bossing the middle overs – and the return of Ashwin has refreshed Ravi Jadeja, who looked out of sorts in the first two games and who always bowls better in the one-day format when he has Ashwin at the other end.
If at all there are any late niggles, questions left unanswered, it is with the bat. Strangely for a side that not so long ago boasted openers of the explosive capabilities of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag, the India fronted by Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan have regressed to a very 1990s style of play that features nudges and nurdles and an at times painful progress through the power play overs.
The theory, oft-repeated by the captain, is that the team prefers to save wickets for exploding at the death. Which, in common with all theories, sounds good on paper. In practice, however, India has not merely started slow, but remained relatively slow through much of the middle overs (in part thanks to the fact that Kohli has looked very vulnerable outside off early on, and has therefore taken more time than usual to settle in), leaving a lot to do at the end – which is precisely when the opposition has its best bowlers on.
This is the only perceptible chink in the armour of a team that will likely be unchanged from the eleven that defeated South Africa. And this is why, if you were calling the play, you’d reckon India is better off chasing than setting a target – once they know what they have to do, they are adept at setting their pace.
For the third time in as many years, after the World Cup quarterfinal in Melbourne in March 2015 and the Group 2 game of the World T20 in Bangalore in March 2016, that India finds itself facing Bangladesh in a key game of a global tournament. The two earlier encounters resulted in wins (though admittedly, the T20 win was razor-edge). Without discounting Bangladesh’s dramatic progress over the last couple of years, the trifecta looks the likelier outcome in Birmingham on Thursday.