Two images stand out as the second week of this 2019 World Cup began. Neither is from Nottingham, where Pakistan sprung a surprise on England this past Monday. Instead, travel 200 miles away, and they emanate from Southampton, where India and South Africa are clashing on Wednesday.
The first image is of Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla working at the nets – just two of them as other South African players took a break. It was much needed time off, having lost both their games so far. It was also quite a bit of desperation – they need Steyn fit to face India, and they need Amla as well. The Proteas, at this point in time, are lacking in inspiration and searching for answers that a quality team shouldn’t be. It is a pitiful state to be in.
The other image is of KL Rahul, Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni, walking the streets of Southampton after their net session was cut short on Monday. They had big toothy grins, indicating the calmness of that Indian team at present. Practice, day off, paintball sessions, practice, gym day, practice – that’s what their schedule has been since the second warm-up game against Bangladesh in Cardiff. They know what they have to do; they are well rested and they are raring to go.
It is a study in contrast. On the one hand, Faf du Plessis is cutting a lonesome figure. His gaze, whilst addressing the media after the loss against Bangladesh, could have cut a hole in the wall at the far side of the conference room. His face is forlorn, ageing almost, in pain, like other South African captains at past World Cups.
On the other hand is Virat Kohli – calm and collective, avoiding the mob-like frenzy while he goes about his routine diligently, preparing for a tournament that could very well define this same superstardom. He has a bigger weight of expectations on his shoulders than any other captain in the fray. Yet, he isn’t feeling it, or rather, not showing it because he is used to this pressure. He has created a bubble for himself and he stays within its boundaries.
And the BCCI has made well sure that those boundaries stay protected, not only for Kohli but the entire Indian team. Thanks to the Supreme Court recommendations, implemented by the COA, the Indian team has got a sizeable 23-day gap between the IPL and their first game at the World Cup. Because of the stipulation of 15 days between matches of two major events, the two warm-up matches couldn’t be scheduled any earlier and then, through some clever BCCI string-pulling, the Indian players were afforded some extra rest.
It presents a strange situation, wherein other teams have all nearly played two games before India even start off their tournament. Further, South Africa have already lost both their opening encounters so they come into this fixture in a desperate situation already. It is almost home-like comfort for the Men in Blue, despite playing away from home, thanks in part to the Lodha Recommendations and in part to BCCI flexing its muscles when drawing up/agreeing to the World Cup schedule.
Of course, it is not ideal in a world-event tournament like this. And it will evenly balance out when India play their first four games in the span of 11 days. Thus, it is time to hit the ground running from the starting point itself. In that respect, there is good news for the Indian dressing room – everyone, including Kedar Jadhav, is fit and available for selection.
The question to ask here is, whether he will be selected. Jadhav hasn’t played a game since 5 May when he was injured during an IPL game. Ravindra Jadeja meanwhile has had time in the middle, bowled useful spells and shown his utility in the field, all during the two warm-ups. Individually, there is no comparison between the two – Jadhav is a full-time batsman, Jadeja a spinner. Even so, the team management is now equating them in the same role – lower-order spin all-rounder.
It is quite possible that Jadhav’s lack of match practice might go against him, and Jadeja is picked in the playing eleven along with the two wrist spinners. Yes, India could field as many as three spinners on Wednesday, with skipper Kohli making it clear that three pacers only come into consideration when the pitch has something extra in it, never mind the weather conditions.
The match-wicket at the Hampshire Bowl (as the Ageas Bowl will be called during this World Cup) looked a good batting track before Tuesday rains brought on the covers and washed away India’s optional training session. It seems unlikely that Kohli will field all his three pacers – whether it is Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Mohammad Shami partnering with Jasprit Bumrah will largely depend on the Jadhav-Jadeja decision and the lower-order strength of India’s batting. As concerns top order, there is no doubt that KL Rahul is the assigned number four for the near foreseeable future.
Beleaguered South Africa were handed a shock when Steyn was ruled out of the tournament completely, owing to a second shoulder injury that didn’t respond to immediate treatment. In one respect, it is sad news for Steyn – we will perhaps never see a pure fast bowler like him again. In another respect, it is devastating news for the Proteas, who may have hedged their hopes on a superlative performance from him.
Imagine preparing 48 hours before the game, and then out of reckoning the next day; South Africa were hit by a bomb this afternoon, one they didn’t need. It adds to the other headaches on their ever-growing list. Hit by a spate of injuries (read Lungi Ngidi out for 10 days) along with Kagiso Rabada and Chris Morris looking jaded from their IPL exertions, their bowling plan A has been shredded to pieces by England and Bangladesh.
A bigger worry for the Proteas emanating from those games though was their lightweight batting. Gone are the days of Gary Kirsten, Daryl Cullinan and Lance Klusener lighting up World Cups, or AB de Villiers single-handedly carrying them through; this current line-up seems as like it will be blown away by a gust of wind. They rely heavily on Amla and du Plessis, with Quinton de Kock and Aiden Markram showing some semblance of form. But the lower middle order hasn’t stepped up as was the case in defeat to Bangladesh. It could yet again be exposed against India’s wrist spinners in the middle overs.
It goes without emphasis that the South African dressing room will be a dispirited one, and it doesn’t help matters that they have lost to this opposition in their last five ICC events.
India will start favourites on Wednesday, even more than they were earlier.