Assess the conditions. Assess the opposition. Devise a plan. Set a perfect template for batting. Set a perfect template for bowling. Execute that plan to perfection.
More often than not, this recipe will bring you success in cricket. And it was on display at The Oval where India outsmarted Australia to send a gentle reminder as to why they are considered one of the favourites to lift that coveted World Cup trophy.
On a sunny Sunday, Virat Kohli won the toss and elected to bat. And then batted to a plan. They knew that Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc were the biggest threats. Starc had taken a five-for in the last match against West Indies while Cummins has had decent success against India over the last few years. Also, the only time the chance of gaining good movement was going to be the first hour. So Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan started cautiously.
The two played patiently and saw off the first hour. There was no significant movement in the air or off the pitch but still, the openers stuck to the plan and played safe. In the first seven overs, they scored just 22 runs at 3.14 runs an over. Cummins had figures of 4-0-12-0, while Starc conceded just eight runs from three overs. There was just one boundary in those seven overs, a beautiful cover drive off Cummins by Dhawan.
India knew that Australia had a relatively less threatening bowling line-up in the form of Natha Coulter-Nile and Adam Zampa. With Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis to come in the middle overs, upping the scoring would be easy during that time. As soon as Coulter-Nile came as a first-change bowler, Dhawan took the aggressive route and scored 14 off his first over. The next 15 overs saw them score 105 runs at 7 runs per over before Rohit was finally bounced out by Coulter-Nile. Rohit could have been back in the hut in the second over itself but Coulter-Nile had put down a difficult chance at square leg. Rohit made most of it and hit 57 from 70 balls. The opening stand had provided a strong platform.
The impressive part was their primary spinner, Zampa, wasn't allowed to settle down and was attacked straightaway. The leg-spinner's first three overs were taken for 24 runs. He ended up bowling just six overs, conceding 50 runs at 8.33.
Plan 1 executed.
"I think they took their time, obviously, and they assessed the conditions really quickly and probably identified that they were going to be the two hardest or the two biggest threats early on in the innings," Australia captain Aaron Finch acknowledged India's astute planning in the post-match conference. "It felt as though they swallowed their pride and really pulled back a gear and made sure that they got through the first 10 overs, and when you've got world-class players on good wickets and you've got 10 wickets in hand, you can start to up the ante a bit earlier.
"I think not getting wickets early on was probably key there. To have them guys batting deep into the innings, that just gives them so many options where they can shuffle Pandya up the order and Dhoni, so yeah, I think they played it really well, and probably negated our biggest threats early on."
Kohli and Dhawan then got into the cruise control mode. Dhawan took the centre stage. There was a good mix of singles, twos, and fours as Dhawan reached his century, a well thought-out innings, off 96 balls.
Kohli quietly, away from the spotlight, kept ticking the scoreboard. The plan was to get into cruise control in the middle and then hunt for the leather at the death. From 11-40 overs they scored at 6.50 runs per over.
Plan 2 executed.
One of the key factors for India in this World cup was flexibility. And that flexibility helped them at The Oval. At Dhawan's fall, Hardik Pandya was promoted and he blasted 48 off 27 balls. It changed the momentum. The move to send Pandya early was a masterstroke. MS Dhoni (27 off 14) and KL Rahul(11 off 3) then took over from the Baroda all-rounder to provide late surge and take India past 350. India scored 116 runs at 11.6 per over in the death.
"Look, the communication before that was, if I get out, MS will come in to control that one end, and if Shikhar got out, then Hardik would have stepped in," Kohli explained of the move to send Pandya early. "Exactly what happened, and the communication came from the management that said let's send Hardik and try and capitalise on this because last time we played here against Sri Lanka we got 330 and we lost the game.
"And then the fact that Hardik said to me in the middle that I'm there at one end gave him the freedom to strike from ball one, and he wanted to strike at 200. That was his plan, and then MS came in and he did the same job beautifully. I think that's where management and that communication is very important, also. They understood that this is a phase where we could get those extra runs, and they just send Hardik, and I think that it was a very, very good plan."
Plan 3 executed.
The scoreboard pressure was built.
Chasing the target, surprisingly, Australia also tried to take the same approach as India and started off cautiously. But they didn't realise the fact that India had the personnel that wouldn't allow them to use that same template. The wrist spinners were of much better quality than Australia's middle overs bowlers.
India were quick to pounce upon David Warner's reluctance at the start and devised a strategy to frustrate him. The plan was to just bowl accurate lines and let the batsman commit a mistake.
"Well, we sort of felt like they were a bit hesitant in going for the boundary option," Kohli explained at the post-match conference. "So the communication was very simple: Bowl at good lengths but within the stumps and pitch it up, because as a batsman I know when you're not looking for a boundary option, the last ball you want is a length ball on stumps because you have to play a good short to get a boundary.
"I just felt like at that stage they didn't want to lose wickets was the mentality that we felt like they wanted to keep it so they could strike big in the end. But I think that was too big a total to play like that initially. So we sensed that, the bowlers sensed that, and then we just thought that the higher we take the run rate, we will get a few chances to take wickets, and then the game will go beyond them slowly."
Plan 4 executed.
Warner limped to his fifty off 77 balls. Finch was already back in the hut, run out. The frustration got to Warner and he charged down the wicket to Yuzvendra Chahal and mistimed the flick straight to deep mid-wicket. 56 of 84 balls.
The next plan was the slow, slower, slowest one. On a slow wicket, the bowlers decided to change the pace and bowl the cutters.
Chahal flighted them like they would land only tomorrow. And he got the wicket of Warner. The Indian spinners kept a tight noose in the middle overs which built the pressure.
The defining moment probably arrived in the 40th over where Bhuvneshwar picked up both Smith and Stoinis. Bumrah joined the slow-ball party to send back Coulter-Nile and Pat Cummins.
The required run rate creeping up was always going to be in their subconscious, and that created a muddle. The key to chasing high scores is that you need to have sustained momentum. India bowled 131 dot balls, almost 22 overs, compared to Australia's 96. Pressure built. Regular wickets followed and the momentum, whatever they had gained was lost time and again.
"Well, they bowled really well to him early, and I think particularly playing on a used wicket again for our second time in three games played a little bit of a part in that," Finch said in the post-match conference. "Their spinners probably had a bigger impact than what ours did through the middle overs in particular where the ball was just starting to hold up.
"They just didn't give us any width to get away or any length to really work with, either over the top or get a drive away. Their bowling plans were pretty simple but really effective on a wicket like that.
Australia never gained sustained momentum and fell short by 36 runs. All through this, India's fielding was brilliant and that was the added top-up to the astute bowling.
Plan 5 executed. KO. Game over.
India were smart, effective and one step ahead of Australia and the revenge of that home series defeat earlier this year was complete.
"Look, we were more motivated to win today because of the fact that we lost the series in India, being 2-0 up, and there was no Mitchell Starc, either. So him coming in makes their bowling lineup even stronger. So I think we had to be at the top of our game, as I said, and couldn't have asked for a better game in all three departments."
While Kohli savoured the win, the fans, who had enveloped The Oval in a sea of blue, chanted, sang, and danced on the streets outside the ground. And if Kohli's men maintain the same intensity and intelligence, who knows, they might probably be dancing on the streets outside the Lord's as well on 14 July.
The writer is in London to cover India vs Australia World Cup match on the invitation of Oppo Mobiles