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ICC Champions Trophy 2017: South Africa win shows Team India can up the ante in knockout games

One of the more remarkably reassuring traits of this new-age Indian team has been their ability to rise to the occasion and eke out wins when they matter the most. And it isn’t just one or two players, but virtually the entire team which ups its level of performance in the crunch contests.

India have reached the semi-final stages of all the four ICC ODI tournaments played since 2011, lifting the trophy on two of those occasions – with a third now well within reach. No other nation has shown such consistency in the same period. Perhaps, this stems from the team’s former skipper MS Dhoni, whose composure has rubbed off on a generation of players, and from their current captain Virat Kohli, whose rather infectious self-belief is like the undying flame of trick birthday candles.

Virat Kohli played a captain's knock to guide India home. AP

Virat Kohli played a captain's knock to guide India home. AP

Or maybe, it is simply the collective quality of talent combined with the exposure they receive these days, especially during pressure cooker scenarios of the Indian Premier League (IPL) – a tournament which does well to make men out of boys. England all-rounder Ben Stokes, in fact, credited his maiden IPL season for exposing him to “big moments in games (while) playing in front of a huge crowd all the time” which helped him construct a career-high 102 that knocked Australia out of the Champions Trophy on Saturday. Indians have had the privilege of this experience for several years now.

On Sunday, in a virtual knockout match versus South Africa, India’s calmness and confidence stood out once again. Kohli’s men looked in control from the first ball to the last – and certainly betrayed any notion that self-doubts may have creeped in after the shock defeat to Sri Lanka.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, who finished with an economy rate of 3.06 and 3.50 respectively, set the tone early by bowling to a definite plan, with an almost unerring accuracy. Ravichandran Ashwin, playing his first match of the event, Ravindra Jadeja, recovering from a beating last game, and Hardik Pandya, under the fans’ scanner, did not let up either.

Quinton de Kock, who loves playing against India, wasn’t allowed room to free his arms while Hashim Amla struggled with his timing and was not able to find the gaps. Slow scoring rate, devoid of boundaries (only three in the first 10 overs), built up the pressure which forced the opening duo into attempting two suicidal singles – though India failed to hit the stumps.

Proteas’ first wicket did not fall until the 18th over of the innings but India did not panic. Instead, the bowlers stuck to their task and continued to stifle the runs – and were eventually rewarded with the key wickets. Both openers fell trying to force the pace, while AB de Villiers and David Miller, potential match-winners, were run out in trying to sneak in extra runs. A proactive Kohli then went for the kill and South Africa collapsed, losing their final eight wickets for 51 runs.

India’s fielding effort, much criticised against the Lankans, rose to the occasion too in effecting three run outs – making it a tournament-high six run outs now. Aggressive fielding and field-placings were the order of the day; a buzz on the field that reflected the team’s body language.

Shikhar Dhawan, who scores for fun in major ICC events, and Virat Kohli, albeit speculative, safely guided India to a convincing victory. Again, barring a Rohit Sharma brain fade – the likes of which we have gotten used to in Tests – there were no concerns regarding the Indian chase. South Africa did not once get a look-in.

Convincing wins in high-profile matches have become somewhat of a theme for India of late. In 2015, India had headed to the World Cup Down Under relatively low on confidence. Bowlers were failing to bowl the opposition out and had been gifting runs at the death. The form of batsmen such as Kohli had been of great concern. Naturally, expectations were low and doubts aplenty. Still, India pulled off seven dominant wins on the trot, including taking Pakistan, South Africa and the West Indies to the cleaners, before Australia halted their merry march in the semi. On the whole, barring the editor of one TV channel, the nation felt proud of the team’s efforts.

Two years prior to that, the 2013 Champions Trophy in England saw India win all their matches leading up to the final, with plenty to spare. Here too, South Africa, Pakistan and West Indies were beaten comfortably before Sri Lanka were demolished in the semi-final. In a rain-reduced final against England, Ishant Sharma’s surprising late burst helped India win a close contest. Even during the famous World Cup-winning campaign back home in 2011, India had taken it up a notch in the knockouts. In the group stages, Dhoni’s team had been soundly beaten by South Africa and had tied with England, which were their two toughest opponents in the group. Come the knockout stages, the story changed. A fantastic chase knocked the title-holders Australia out; a polished performance helped navigate past an in-form Pakistan; and a nerve-wrangling final victory against Sri Lanka was achieved after another tricky chase was made to look easy.

This bold and fearless Indian team have made a habit out of raising its performances in crucial matches. It is unlike any of the country’s teams from the previous eras. No surprises then that they are only two matches away from an unprecedented third major ICC title in four attempts.

Akarsh Sharma is a sports traveller and writer who contributes to various publications. His work is collated on and he occasionally tweets here.

Updated Date: Jun 13, 2017 00:47 AM

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