Half way through the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 league phase is as good a time as any to take stock. India with three wins out of four, with one washed out, have enjoyed a most satisfying first half and this has put them in a decidedly positive frame of mind for the rest of the phase.
Each team has to play nine league games and barring India and New Zealand all others have had five outings apiece. New Zealand play their fifth league encounter on Wednesday, against South Africa. And as the teams gear up for the second half of the league there should be plenty of jostling for the top four positions.
India drew tough opponents for the first four games and the fact that they came out unscathed has made them the team to beat in this edition of the World Cup.
The most satisfying aspect for India is that besides their specialists, those utilised as floaters have also come good against strong opposition.
Hardik Pandya used up and down the batting order, from number four to number six, has lived up to expectations. His hard-hitting 48 in just 27 balls against Australia after he was sent up the order in appreciation of his pinch-hitting skills was exactly the boost the team needed.
Another floater who has had a very satisfying debut at the World Cup is Vijay Shankar. His batting, bowling and fielding were handy enough to give the team and himself enough confidence to take into subsequent matches.
MS Dhoni’s rapid 27 in 14 balls against Australia too was a sign of good things to come. The team would get a further shot in the arm if Kedar Jadav or Dhoni could piece together an innings of fifty or above anytime soon.
There were two other issues which worked out well for India. The hamstring niggle that has laid low Bhuvaneshwar Kumar for two to three matches helped Kohli test Shankar’s mettle under pressure. He and the team management must surely be pleased with the results.
The bigger advantage, though, would be in getting Mohammed Shami to soon slip into competitive cricket. Shami, the obvious replacement for the frontline fast bowlers, would get an opportunity to get into match form just in case he was needed later, in the semifinals or final.
It is the same logic that required KL Rahul to get a shot at opening the batting. While the injury to an in-form Sikhar Dhawan was unfortunate, it served to throw Rahul into the deep end very early in the competition. Remarkably, he came out in flying colours.
The best news for India is that while its top order, Rohit Sharma with two centuries, Dhawan with one ton and Virat Kohli with knocks of 18, 82 and 77 have struck form early, the others, Rahul (57, 11, 26), Pandya (26, 48, 15 n.o.) and Dhoni (27 & 34) have also eased into their respective roles.
Dhoni’s innings of 34 and his 74-run stand with Rohit in the first match against South Africa was just the sort of defiant fightback that the veteran needed to get his competitive juices flowing again. His 27 from 14 balls against Australia would have also primed him for the battle ahead.
Tough opening games
Importantly for India they are almost done with tough opposition (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan) in the league stage. Only the match against a very strong England team remains and both teams would be keen that they don’t end up meeting again in the semifinals where the top placed team is slated to take on the fourth placed side in one game while teams placed second and third would clash in the other semifinal.
West Indies, whom India play next week (27 June), were expected to be the dark horses because of their power hitters. But, somehow, they have not played as forcefully as expected. India could have a tougher match against Bangladesh (2 July), but Kohli and co look a lot more sleeker and better organised than the Bangladeshis.
The main threat for India would be injuries to key personnel at inopportune times and, of course, rain. India’s match against New Zealand was abandoned because of rain and that was a pity because the Kiwis have been really impressive thus far. If anything they would have run India close.
Injuries to Dhawan and Bhuvi have provided opportunities to test the bench strength and the results have been extremely encouraging. Additionally Kuldeep Yadav seems to have got his mojo back and as the tournament gets into the warmer month of July. Yuzvendra Chahal and he may just find a lot more purchase in the pitches.
An eye on other teams
Much like India, other major sides, Australia and England also have injury issues. The next few matches are crucial for all teams to keep key players in form and fit for the business end of the tournament.
Barring Afghanistan who have lost all five matches, the other teams are all still in the fray for a berth in the last four. However, at this point of time, rain and upset results notwithstanding, India, England, Australia and New Zealand are the teams to watch out for.
That said, keep an eye on the remaining league matches. Desperate men in hard battles could fascinatingly boost intensity of the race to the top four like nothing else.
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Rahul made batting look easy with six boundaries and three sixes in his 24-ball-51 while Kishan was retired hurt after a chiselled 70 off 46 balls that had three sixes apart from seven boundaries as India chased a target of 189 with an over to spare.
MS Dhoni had been appointed mentor to the Indian team for the T20 World Cup during the squad announcement by BCCI last month
India have been lacking that vital push to cross the finish line in ICC events. However, they now have a mastermind in Dhoni inside that dressing room, someone who has provided those crucial final pushes in the past and that might just hold them in good stead.