2014 World Twenty20 final. 2015 World Cup semi-final. 2016 World T20 semi-final. 2017 Champions Trophy final.
India could have harboured reasonable expectations of winning each of those clashes. But like on Sunday, they ran into a team which outplayed the Indian side. Arguably, only against Australia in 2015, it did not enter the match as the outright favourite. But it was, indeed, a matter of great surprise that India ended on the losing side in the other three contests.
As Virat Kohli took stock of another disappointment at the Oval, a few familiar sentences returned to the scene. “In the end, sometimes, you have to admire the skill of the opposition as well.
See, you know, the other team has also come to win a game of cricket… We tried our level best but we just couldn’t make things happen today.”
It was certainly gracious of the skipper to admit that India had been bested by the better side on the day. But it is worrying how these defeats have come to acquire the look of a pattern – India storms through the group stages only to come short against an opponent which either plays out of its skin or just brings better cricket to the contest.
If it happened once or twice, you could come to accept the losses as the vagaries of sport. But for a side which prides themselves on their limited-overs displays, there needs to be a stronger statement of India’s credentials. A lack of trophies is not the hallmark of the finest team.
There is much to say for what went wrong on Sunday. The early no-ball which allowed Fakhar Zaman to go scot-free after he was caught behind was a sign of things to come. India finished with thirteen wides and three no-balls. The semifinal defeat against West Indies in Mumbai last year came to mind. That defeat was also marked by the two non-dismissals of Lendl Simmons, who was caught of no-balls as he led his side to a record successful chase. It does not reflect well on a side when basic errors hold it back in tense moments.
Perhaps, as Kohli said in his post-match comments, one could not legislate for Fakhar’s streaky brilliance. However India’s bowlers did not extract the assistance that was very much on offer from the Oval pitch, as shown by their counterparts later in the match. Bhuvneshwar Kumar tightened the noose somewhat but the resistance offered by other bowlers amounted to very little. This took one back to Steve Smith’s knock in the 2015 World Cup semi-final when he just picked off the runs with remarkable ease. Kumar Sangakkara, another batsman of redoubtable pedigree, also stood up when it counted in the 2014 World T20 final to swat the Indian challenge away. The bowlers just did not have an answer when put under the cosh.
Then, of course, there were the batsmen who underperformed. A quality bowling attack had its say over a much-vaunted batting unit, in three of the four matches under question. Over three years ago, Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekara stymied India in the slog overs to ensure it did not cross 130 in their allotted 20 overs. At Sydney in 2015, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Johnson were the tormentors-in-chief. On Sunday, it was the turn of Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali and Junaid Khan.
Herein lies a serious issue. Every Indian challenge in major tournaments has been built on imperious batting displays. When India chased down 265 against Bangladesh in the semifinal with 59 balls to spare and nine wickets remaining, it appeared that there was little that you could do to hurt the side. The top three batsmen were moving forward like an unstoppable force. But a spell of probing seam bowling by Amir on Sunday was all it took for the innings to come apart. It should not happen, time and again, in crunch situations to batsmen whose credentials remain strong.
Admittedly, India was undone by a bowling unit in incredible form. But the inability to win different limited-overs competitions is a reason for worry now. What explains this trend? There were different reasons for each of those defeats but one thing stood out.
In the three International Cricket Council (ICC) tournament triumphs from 2007 to 2013, India produced courageous displays in crunch games. Even when the going got tough, it was a side which knew it could reach another gear if the situation demanded so. That was the hallmark of each of those victories; India had made a habit of turning around adverse situations.
Now, the picture is not as rosy. While the Indian team still brings impeccable cricket to major tournaments — marked out by its capability to master every facet of the game — there seems to be an inhibition which gnaws at their competitiveness in knockout games. This explains why India could not break the shackles to score more than 130 against Sri Lanka in 2014, its all-conquering bowlers and batsmen did not even give a whiff of challenge to Australia a year later and, during the 2016 World T20 semis, little pressure was exerted on a West Indies side that is known to crumble, when the going gets tough. Far too often in games of such magnitude, the proceedings have been allowed to meander along rather than taken charge of.
The reactive attitude was present at the Oval on Sunday too. Even though Pakistan had won matches only while chasing in this tournament, India did not make use of a fresh pitch to bat after winning the toss. Its batsmen, the biggest asset to the side, could have set a score which the opposition would find overwhelming. A target in the excess of 300 was arguably beyond even this Pakistan side, even though it had made a mockery of conventional opinion (including mine). Although one could understand that India fancied themselves to chase any score, it did seem that Kohli and his side were responding to Pakistan’s surprise run to the final rather than backing what had worked so well in their tournament opener.
Of course, quibbles over the toss might be of trivial importance in light of India’s comprehensive defeat. But giving Ravichandran Ashwin one over after another when his effectiveness was clearly in doubt said much about the captain and his team. India seemed overly aware of the setting in which they found themselves. It can happen to the best of sides and this Indian team certainly belongs to that category. And of course, nobody should neglect other issues like the continued faith in Yuvraj Singh.
But serious attention needs to be given to the assumption that India will be better for the defeat on Sunday. Four losses in knockout games of major tournaments represent a tipping point. This bunch of talented cricketers could end up as the nearly men. How long before defeats in such situations begin to scar your morale? It is a question that the Indian team may need to address soon. After all, you can wallow in glorious failure for only so long.