This 2019 Cricket World Cup owes a lot to Sri Lanka.
Beating England, in their present mighty avatar, is a seminal moment for any weakling side. Imagine Afghanistan, or even West Indies for that matter, achieving that rousing victory against the hosts — it would kick-start a revolution back home. For this Lankan side, it was more about the maximum they could have achieved in this tournament.
Honestly, when the World Cup began, no one — not even the most ardent Sri Lankan fans — gave this side any chance. Leave aside winning the tournament, winning a single game was talked up as the parameter to judge this team. Oh, how the mighty had fallen; last time England hosted this tournament, Sri Lanka were here as defending champions. Now, Afghanistan were considered a mighty challenge for them.
But then, Lanka defied this assumption and until the fag end of this World Cup’s penultimate week, they were in contention for a last-four spot. Yes, you read that right — a team, that their own fans doubted would struggle to get two points, was within touching distance of the knock-outs. Cricket can be crazy that way. And Lanka, with two washouts against Pakistan and Bangladesh plus a mad win over England, rode their luck with aplomb.
If indeed their parameter for success is now so low, will Lanka look at this tournament as a building block? Skipper Dimuth Karunaratne spoke about the stark realities of Lankan cricket at the moment, and how their domestic scene is now at reduced strength in comparison to India. He added their cricketers needed to play in English counties and participate more in the IPL as well as the BBL to catch up to modern levels. Maybe, Lankan cricket will recover itself by 2023.
Frankly, though, you don’t need to go that far. On the evidence of watching this tournament alone, there is a stark difference among the sub-continental teams in terms of fitness and fielding. There are India, then daylight, and then Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan line-up (in no particular order). Forget batting and bowling, this aspect alone explains why India are the only sub-continent side to have easily made it this far. Aren’t they on par with England, Australia, and New Zealand in terms of fitness and fielding, if not ahead?
Thing is, they will not beat those three teams by fitness or fielding alone. This is where batting and bowling become vital for the Men in Blue, and it won't be a wonder if their eyes are not already fixed on that semi-final. Of course, India don’t really know who they are playing yet. But barring a Lankan shocker in Leeds and a South African shocker against Australia in Manchester on Saturday (last game of the league stage), they will play England at Edgbaston.
So, again, are they thinking too much about that semi-final already? Maybe yes, albeit Saturday won’t be a starting point. Perhaps this experimentation for that big game began in Birmingham against Bangladesh, when the Indian team management saw it fit to play three full-time pacers apart from Hardik Pandya. The bigger surprise was not in picking just the one full-time spinner, but also in leaving out Kedar Jadhav and any other sixth bowling option.
There are two ways to look at this. One, India regretted playing two wrist spinners against England in their league game, especially given that short boundary. To drop one of them immediately was a tad unkind, but professional cricket makes such demands. In that light, it remains to be seen if this is the way to go forward against Lanka too. Or would one of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami be afforded rest? The latter was missing from optional practice on Friday.
Playing the third seamer against Lanka doesn’t make sense, especially if Dinesh Karthik is still given another chance. For someone who completely missed out in the 2007 World Cup and waited 12 years to get a game in this tournament, it would be too cruel to leave him out after one game. India haven't given Ravindra Jadeja a game yet, and that time is now, instead of an extra pacer.
The reasoning herein is simple — if Karthik only gets to play a handful of deliveries, Jadeja can do a similar hitting job given that opportunity. And if you are going to play three pacers against England, then Jadeja at number seven provides a better balance to the bowling attack, if Jadhav is left out from here onwards. This is where the second aforementioned point emanates.
The three-pacer-one-spinner plan works because Pandya, as a bowler, has been absolutely superb in this tournament. Slower ball, yorker, quick bouncer, and stock off-cutters, et al, his armoury in the World Cup has been full and has been put to good use. At times, he has been expensive in the first spell but has made a good comeback with control and helped India exert on the opposition batting. The England game was again a good example of it, and added to the confidence of playing five bowlers against Bangladesh.
Composition of the bowling attack, and that number seven slot, are two main talking points then, going into this game against Sri Lanka. The question to ask is if you would want to play a semi-final with only five bowling options? Probably not, and thus Jadeja’s inclusion in the playing eleven on Saturday is of great import.
The other talking point is about Mayank Agarwal and where, if at all, does he fit into the Indian plans. He last played active cricket on 5 May, in the Indian Premier League, and was only gearing up to travel to West Indies with India 'A' when this surprise call-up came about. One school of thought asks if Ajinkya Rahane (who is playing for Hampshire at present and played 11 ODIs as opener/middle-order batsman in the build-up to this tournament) would have been a better all-round choice in the business end of the World Cup? That ship though has sailed, and Agarwal has joined up the team in Leeds.
At best, Agarwal fits into the opening slot, now that Rishabh Pant has done enough to hold on to number four for the near foreseeable future. But then KL Rahul scored a timely half-century against Bangladesh and closed that door for the newcomer. It made sense then, because on Friday, Agarwal mostly took part in fielding drills and batted last in the nets for ten minutes, that too only against spinners.
Usually, it is enough to say with confidence about team combination before any game. Then again, this Indian team management is not averse to surprises, even if staring at a World Cup semi-final on the horizon.