One look at the dimensions of the Edgbaston ground would have brought back painful memories for India coach Ravi Shastri.
That time the ground was not under the supposed supervision of ICC. But like at Edgbaston on Sunday, even on that distant day, the dimensions of the playing field were not only to England’s advantage but effectively destroyed whatever advantage India’s spinners, Shastri and Narendra Hirwani, might have had.
England opening batsman Graham Gooch helped himself to a triple ton – 333 to be precise – as he swept and clobbered the spinners and medium pacers alike on a Lord’s outfield that had one side boundary of only 50 yards!
The excuse for having such a ridiculously short boundary was that there was construction work going on at the ground hence the match pitch had to be shifted to the farthest end. (Why the match itself was not shifted to another ground was never explained). Naturally the taller, better-built England fast bowlers were tougher to clobber than the short Indian medium pacers Manoj Prabhakar, Sanjeev Sharma or spinners Shastri and Hirwani.
At least then England were hosts and could manipulate the ground conditions to suit themselves. But what about this World Cup where in response to Sri Lankan manager Asantha De Mel’s stinging criticism of absence of level playing field, ICC claimed that England’s curators were being supervised by ICC and hence under the global body's control?
Make no mistake. This pitch fixing was a manipulation of the worst kind and skipper Virat Kohli was vehement in saying what he did without attracting ICC censure or punishment for bringing the event to disgrace.
“It's a coincidence that it (the short boundary) just falls under the limitations of the shortest boundary you can have in the tournament,” he said in the post-match briefing. “So quite bizarre (that) on a flat pitch, it's the first time we've experienced that. So it's crazy that things fall in place like that randomly.”
There certainly was nothing random about it. England with their excellent mix of left-handed and right-handed batsmen had ensured that the leg-side slog-boundary would be a short distance away irrespective of which end they were batting.
This not only neutralised India’s spinners but on the flat pitch it completely loaded conditions against the spin twins and allowed for them to be taken to the cleaners. England’s big, strongly built hitters could boldly go for the 59-yard side, sure that even a mishit would sail over the fence. For good measure Ben Stokes also fearlessly went for reverse sweep six hitting!
Kohli, his hands and tongue tied by the code of conduct, ‘politely’ called it a coincidence. Will the ICC explain how ‘coincidentally’ England had got most of the flattest batting pitches and, this time around, in this key encounter, also the most convenient short boundary?
Make no mistake. This was supposed to be a crucial match between the number one and number two ODI teams. ICC should have ensured that it was fought on even terms. The least they could have provided was a good pitch and a big lush green outfield. But instead, ICC (remember they are the supervisors) loaded it in favour of England by having a 59-yard boundary which, to repeat what Kohli so tellingly put it: “It's a coincidence that it (the short boundary) just falls under the limitations of the shortest boundary you can have in the tournament.”
And we are not even going into the lightning-quick outfield. Well ICC, your slip is showing!
First aim: win, second aim: protect NRR
There is no such thing as a draw in ODI. But India would have felt that it came closest to the concept when it escaped with its Net Run Rate not severely dented by the loss.
Chasing a target of 338 was not impossible. It needed a couple of good partnerships at the top. But after India failed to do that, it shifted onus to protecting the NRR.
Master batsman Kohli and seasoned Rohit Sharma might have looked like they were scratching and struggling at the start. But they needed to see the new ball off. Had either of them fallen cheaply, England’s bowlers might well have inflicted a huge 100-odd run defeat which would have badly hurt India’s NRR.
India’s chances of pressing for a win evaporated as soon as Sharma was dismissed. While Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya struck a few lusty blows, the target was way too distant.
The much-maligned MS Dhoni ensured that he kept his end going after coming in to bat in the 40th over. Had he been dismissed early there is no saying how many deliveries the others, Yuzvendra Chahal, Mohammed Shami, Kuldeep Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah would have lasted.
Had India been bundled out in the 45th or 46th over it would have pushed their NRR below New Zealand and thereby opened a whole box of fresh problems.
Maybe Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav could have accelerated and scored another 10 to 15 runs in the last three overs. The match though was lost long before that and the final jostling was only to ensure that the NRR stayed positive and ahead of New Zealand’s.
For the record, of the only four teams with a positive NRR, Australia and England are ahead of India while New Zealand, at 0.572 is marginally behind India’s 0.854. This could have a bearing on the final league placings where India would rather finish second or third. Finishing fourth would mean having to take on top placed Australia in the semifinals.