South Africa. Australia. New Zealand. Pakistan.
If you had to pick one of these teams to beat India in their first four matches at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, there is no doubt a majority would land on the second choice. There is something about Australia that makes them perennial favourites at any world event, and it is no different this time around, especially with the returns of David Warner and Steve Smith.
That India brushed past them in a display of rabid intensity just goes to show how strong they are themselves. Nobody questioned their pre-tournament favourites’ tag, and it is all the more emboldened now in the aftermath of their 36-run win over the defending champions on Sunday.
The mood in this Indian camp should be boisterous now. To an extent, it is. But there is also a dumbing down of temperament around this team at present. Perhaps it is to do with Shikhar Dhawan’s injury, and the simple fact that he is now out of contention for the next 10-12 days.
Only the team management (and maybe the players) knows the full extent of damage done — Dhawan could be out of this World Cup altogether. But they are looking to assess his recovery ahead of the England game (30 June in Birmingham) and hoping he will still play a part towards the latter part of this league stage as well as in the knockouts.
Or, perhaps it is to do with the weather. A steady drizzle abounded Nottingham on Wednesday, and the outlook for Thursday (game day) worsened too. Earlier this week, the forecast said that the weather would clear enough to allow an interrupted game. Now, it pretty much predicts a washout after the first 30 overs have been bowled, if that too.
This steady drizzle irritates more than it drenches. You cannot call it rain. You cannot say it is spitting and play should go on. You cannot get over the fact that the sky is all grey and for miles into the distance, there is no sign of blue, let alone any sunshine. A rainy day in England can get very depressing, and this bad weather’s shadow is looming large on this World Cup, having suffered three washouts already.
Both teams have to prepare though, even in the scenario that a truncated game transpires. India held a short practice session in the open. Vijay Shankar batted in the nets first, and nearly for 30 minutes, prompting suggestions that he is pencilled in for number four (or the middle order) on Thursday. Assistant coach Sanjay Bangar later confirmed that KL Rahul, in Dhawan’s absence, gets an automatic promotion to open with Rohit Sharma.
In short, India’s batting line-up — heavily dependent on its top-order — will be rejigged. Therein lies their strength in depth and weakness that a set formula has been broken. And it begins with the broken opening partnership, arguably the most consistent in ODI cricket at present.
Rahul will have huge shoes to fill, and that is an understatement. He has played only 16 ODIs, 14 before this World Cup started, and his record (average 34.54) is patchy at best. When opening, he averages 56 from seven games. But take out his debut series against Zimbabwe in 2016, which seems a long time ago, and that average comes down to 21 in four matches against England (2017) and Afghanistan (Asia Cup, 2018).
One point of view is that he hasn’t had consistent opportunities given how well Rohit-Dhawan have done. The other point of view is that he hasn’t made the few opportunities count either, whether in the top-order or in the middle.
It has a domino effect on the middle order. For two years, India’s preparations for the World Cup were plagued by the question — who is going to bat at number four? Two matches in, and the confusion has returned with a bang. Perhaps Shankar will bat there, or perhaps he is just replacing Dhawan in the playing eleven. Perhaps Hardik Pandya will come up the order again, if India make a good start thanks to their refreshed top-order. Perhaps it will be MS Dhoni, batting time and exploding later on. Perhaps it will be Kedar Jadhav, for he hasn’t had enough time in the middle.
Perhaps it won’t even come to that, for the match will be rained off. The short answer to that aforementioned question then is, nobody knows. What is known, though, that India’s settled line-up is disrupted and immediately after two comprehensive wins over strong opponents like South Africa and Australia, it cannot be a good thing.
New Zealand, apart from India, are now the only other unbeaten team in the competition. Of course, they have beaten Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but the underlying point nevertheless is that they have accrued full six points from these three games as you would expect any tournament contenders to do. Their real test begins now against India, surely, and it is a challenge they will be up for.
The Black Caps’ warm-ups were two indifferent games. They beat India easily at the Oval and then got hammered by West Indies in Bristol — contrasting performances, highly dependent on conditions. In that sense, these three wins have served proper purpose allowing their batsmen and bowlers to seek momentum.
When this writer spoke with Ross Taylor in Wellington during India’s tour of New Zealand back in February, he had outlined this 13 June game as of great import. In 2018, when snubbed by the IPL, he had played for Notts County and earned himself valuable experience. There isn’t an iota of doubt that he is the prized wicket for India, come Thursday, as Taylor has been enjoying an amazing run of form. Both his innings so far in this tournament have yielded runs (82 against Bangladesh and 48 against Afghanistan).
The likes of Kane Williamson, Colin Munro, and Martin Guptill have rallied around him, giving an in-form look to their top-order. As concerns bowling, Lockie Ferguson and Matt Henry have made the top of wicket-takers’ charts, sharing 15 wickets between them in three matches. With Trent Boult and James Neesham sharing another nine wickets, it brings back memories of India’s first warm-up game on this trip against New Zealand.
In seam-friendly conditions, that day at the Oval, the Men in Blue were bowled out for 179 runs. Yes, that game had a different temperament altogether, but conditions will be even more treacherous at Trent Bridge on Thursday. Any and every batting line-up can suffer the consequences of the ball nipping around dangerously, and it remains to be seen which bowling attack gets to have the first go.
Of course, for that to happen, rain will have to relent first.
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