There is something weird at play in this 2019 Cricket World Cup. Up until the Australia-England game, teams have opted to bowl after winning the toss 21 times in 32 matches. It has only resulted in eight wins for the chasing teams, with 12 losses to boot (South Africa-West Indies game was abandoned). And, this phenomenon isn’t going away just yet.
As concerns India, they have had a mixed bag so far. Virat Kohli has won two tosses yet, and chose to bat on both occasions against Australia and Afghanistan. When losing the toss, South Africa opted to bat and Pakistan opted to bowl against India, who benefitted from those decisions. Only on one occasion – against Pakistan – did Kohli want to field first.
It is an open secret that captain Kohli – and this Indian team as an extension – loves to chase. Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, the Men in Blue have chased in 33 ODIs and won 25 of those matches. However, this is where a discrepancy arises. Do they want to chase?
In these same past 24 months, India opted to field on only 12 occasions in 24 ODIs when they won the toss. They did win on 10 occasions, even if this is only a 50-50 ratio of batting or fielding first. The underlying point herein being that India’s strength in chasing might be true, but the fact that they ‘want’ to chase at all times is a misnomer.
Add all these points together, and we get a proper conclusion – India find themselves in a comfortable spot in this World Cup. It allows them room for experimentation and catering to conditions as well as opposition as per each venue they visit. With England, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh fighting it out for the final spot in the top four, the question to ask is if India will take their foot off the pedal in the latter half of the tournament?
It is a fact that India haven’t qualified yet. They are third in the table, with nine points and another two from their next game will help reach 11. Depending on the result of Pakistan-New Zealand game, 11 points would be enough to seal the semi-final spot India seem to have been assured of in every conversation about cricket today.
At the other end of this spectrum are West Indies, with three points from six games and no chance of progressing in the tournament. Thursday’s game at Old Trafford then is about a mental battle. It is about the guarantee of an extremely proficient India side turning up to get the job done. It is also about wondering which West Indies’ side will turn up – consummate professionals, awe-inspiring attacking cricketers or a laid-back side that can simply be over-run because this team has run its course.
On Wednesday, in the build-up to this game, skipper Jason Holder was surprised to hear that Chris Gayle had taken a U-turn on his retirement decision. Generally, as captain, you assume he would be the first to know. It points to that ‘laid-back’ approach to cricket in the Caribbean. This is a disjointed team, from different parts of that region, from various countries, and all cricketers perhaps pursuing individual goals than a common dream. What else explains Gayle’s renewed decision to keep playing international cricket, which most of the time he is unavailable for?
Again, in comparison, this Indian team is at the other end of this spectrum too. Arguably, this is the most tightly knit squad in blue ever. They have all bought into one goal – to win the World Cup. It doesn’t really matter whose vision it might be. Take MS Dhoni’s case for example. His slow knock at Southampton was simply not good enough.
And yet, the team management stands firmly behind him in the aftermath of India’s narrow win against Afghanistan. It is because they truly believe that their best chance to win this World Cup is with Dhoni in the playing eleven. They decided on this path long ago, when he gave up captaincy, and not recently. It may be up for discussion in media circles and for heated debates amongst the fans, but it is not in the dressing room.
As such, India will be looking for an improved batting performance and nothing more, when they take the field against West Indies. Apart from Dhoni, the other debate is regarding number four. There is an inherent desire to be consistent with team selection, and Vijay Shankar seems to have sewn up that spot for the moment. He sweated hard in the nets on Tuesday and Wednesday, while Rishabh Pant only had a brisk outing, pointing towards the same batting combination for Thursday’s game.
It is an odd one though. On paper, Pant should be getting ahead of Shankar in terms of talent alone. However, there are still doubts regarding the best playing eleven for India. Perhaps the team management wants to test this combination ahead of making any potential changes for, or after, the game against England. Meanwhile, even as Bhuvneshwar Kumar works hard to regain fitness, he is still ruled out of this game. There is a chance he might be available for 30 June, but till then, Mohammad Shami will partner up with Jasprit Bumrah.
The Old Trafford pitch is a used one. West Indies have played on it against New Zealand previously, and while their pace attack continues to be a potent threat, they didn’t have too many spinners in that game. Ashley Nurse and Gayle are their main options, and it doesn’t look like changing. As such, the Indian middle order can breathe easy, even if the pitch slows down and they are set for a chase, whether wilfully or otherwise.