Apart from the loss against hosts England in the group stage, India’s only defeat ever since touching down in United Kingdom for the World Cup came in the warm up game against New Zealand.
Virat Kohli’s India were skittled out for 179 in that game under overcast conditions and the Kiwis romped home to victory rather easily. But a lot has changed since then with India going on to top the group standings while their opponent’s in the first semi-final at Old Trafford on Tuesday barely managing to scrape through on a better net run rate.
During the group stage, Indian bowlers have picked 69 of 80 wickets available in the eight league matches while the top order has time and again come to the party, allowing the Indians to dominate oppositions.
In contrast, New Zealand, apart from Afghanistan, are the only side who have failed to breach the 300-mark even once in this 2019 Cricket World Cup. And they are facing a side that has scored 300-plus in four out of their eight matches, with a lot more in reserve whilst chasing in two other games.
Simply put, India are a well-oiled juggernaut at the moment. Everything seems to be working like clockwork, albeit they have ridden hiccups (read injuries, batting shuffles and bowling changes) well enough. One cog is missing, however. It is more a weird statistic than anything else, honestly. But it does stick out. Amidst the plethora of runs coming from the Indian batting line-up, Kohli doesn’t have a single hundred yet.
He is scoring runs though, and plenty of them. At last count, Kohli’s 442 runs (including five half-centuries) account for 19.2 per cent of India’s tally in this World Cup. Then, there is Rohit Sharma whose golden touch has seen 28.2 per cent run-contribution. Add KL Rahul’s 360, and that’s 63.1 per cent runs from the top-order. This is the very essence of India’s ODI batting plan, and despite Shikhar Dhawan’s absence, it has started working fine again.
Much of it is down to Rahul. Moving up and down the order, it does make for some adjustments and they take time kicking in. The team management, in Kohli’s words, have been patient with him, fully aware of the job at hand. In turn, it has allowed the likes of Hardik Pandya and Rishabh Pant to flourish. People may argue about the form of MS Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav, but only one loss to England reflects that they have done their job adequately.
More sedate Kohli
Even so, you cannot help but feel there is something amiss. And for that, you do have to return to Kohli. Booming cover drives, forceful running between wickets, and pulling out the big guns when needed – all of it has been a feature in the past eight games. But have you noticed – despite being fully in control, Kohli has still batted differently from his normal self?
There is a distinctive desperation about him, of not throwing away his wicket, and anchoring the innings instead. It is a realization even, for he knows of the middle-order’s brittleness. Every time Kohli has walked out to the crease, he has been in accumulative mode and trying to see through the overs, in the knowledge that batting till the end will put his side in command nevertheless.
“I have had to control the innings in the middle overs and I have learnt so much in this World Cup, along with spending time in the middle. Okay, this is also a role that you are supposed to play and when situation arises you have to do that for the other guys to express themselves knowing that one I’m controlling an end and holding it to the end,” explained Kohli.
At times, specifically when India struggled against Afghanistan and West Indies on slow pitches, he batted as if on a different pitch to others. Just that you are not batting for ultimate glory, but for the team’s cause – as just another batsman, not the world’s best, even if you are. For a free-flowing batsman like him, it is still an unusual mode of expression, albeit still scoring with consistency. This freedom comes from knowing that all cogs in the wheel are working fine.
Look at the other side – Williamson knows he is a cog too, albeit a slightly over-worked one in comparison to his counterpart.
“I look at my role as one of the eleven (who have a role to do), and we all have the same opportunity (in the semi-final). These guys have had significant contributions over the past years and it is important to take a fresh mind set (forward),” the Kiwis’ skipper said on Monday.
These were the words of a statesman, not of an over-burdened batsman. Just consider his workload – Williamson has scored 481 runs, 28.1 per cent of New Zealand’s runs in this tournament, with a lowest score of 27. In that he is matching Rohit’s contribution, except the rest –Martin Guptill, Colin Munro, Tom Latham (these three have merely 389 runs together) and even Ross Taylor to an extent – have gone missing.
Williamson needs support
In terms of approach, the two leading batsmen have had a similar job description. Dig in and hold one end together – there is no freedom in his batting though. Kohli made a self-conscious decision to bat the way he did in this World Cup thus far, while it has been forcibly thrust onto Williamson. It is not to say he hasn’t been his usual expressive self when batting, no.
Caressing flicks, timing the ball through gaps and quietly (re)building the innings has been a hallmark of Williamson’s knocks here. But you don’t win semi-finals when only one batsman is scoring while the other are on paid holiday. Saving his side from constant failure has been an on-going job for him, one that he is quite adept at too.
The Kiwis’ skipper denied there is additional pressure on his batsmen to perform, nay, simply support him – frankly though, he would have better luck selling candy to kids. And a day before the game, it was most reflective in the two teams’ mannerisms. Jovial and chirpy, Kohli was relaxed. He didn’t even bat in the nets. Rohit didn’t even turn up. It was optional practice, wherein only four frontline batsmen hit a few balls about – the shortest training session on tour yet for the Men in Blue, not even lasting two hours.
Williamson was relaxed too; he has done all he possibly could thus far, and more. His Black Caps, meanwhile, sweated it out for nearly three hours. Even whilst the grounds men tucked the Old Trafford pitch to sleep under covers, there were batsmen still busy in the nets. Perhaps in the knowledge, four years ago, a lack of runs stopped short their title aspirations in the World Cup final at Melbourne.
This time around, a similar shortage of runs will halt their march a step earlier in Manchester.