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Yes, We Are Table Toppers, But Are We Playing Like Champs!

Our National team, riding on a tsunami of patriotic support from the cricket crazy fans, has expectedly steamrolled into the semi-finals of the ICC World Cup 2019 in England-Wales, and emerged table toppers at that, with just a single loss, to hosts England. National sentiment would overwhelmingly back the Men in Blue to lift a third World Cup and place India closer to the Kangaroos’ all time record of five titles. But the euphoria across the country apart, are we confident enough to believe that we are playing like champions!

As an avid club level cricketer of yore and a keen follower of the game for close to five decades, I would tend to disagree, going by the ground realities of the team’s performance thus far in the tournament, despite the patriot in me wishfully believing otherwise.

Yes, We Are Table Toppers, But Are We Playing Like Champs!, Lifeinchd

India has progressed to this stage, powered among other things by the consistent brilliance and grit shown by a few key players, and not so much on the strength of being an overall better side. Going into the semi-finals, we are yet to strike a balance in the team vis-a-vis our batting and bowling units.

India went into the tournament with concerns only over an unsettled number four position in the batting order, which otherwise looked rock solid. The core of the bowling unit, comprising medium pacers Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, considered the kings of accuracy, variation and death bowling, and wicket-taking wrist spinner duo of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, also seemed capable of demolishing any batting line-up.

But going by the team’s performance thus far, the formidable Indian batting top order has once again proved its mettle, despite the further setback of losing the inform Shikhar Dhawan so early on in the tournament. The ‘hitman’ Rohit Sharma is dominating the opposition bowling attacks, arguably as never before, skipper Virat Kohli is a pillar of strength as always despite the fans’ apparent disappointment at him not scoring a century, and KL Rahul is beginning to prove true to the trust reposed in him by the team management. Hardik in the middle order has also done his fair bit and looks set to hit peak form when it will matter the most.

The experimentation in the middle order, which is continuing right up to the semi-final stage and the topic of some criticism, is, therefore, not that much of an issue considering that the top order is firing from all cylinders, and, though late in the day, induction of Rishab Pant has added that extra power punch to the batting order.

The main cause of worry going into the elimination round is lacklustre performance of India’s bowling unit.

Yes, We Are Table Toppers, But Are We Playing Like Champs!, Lifeinchd

Though the team management can take heart in mystery man Jasprit Bumrah being among the top wicket takers in this World Cup, and the Hardik Pandya proving effective with his subtle variations of pace and bounce, the current form of the other bowlers is a cause for serious concern.

Injury-hit Bhuvneshwar Kumar appears to have completely lost his touch, and apart from not being able to take wickets, he is going for too many runs. Mohammed Shami, who replaced him in a couple of matches, displayed his wicket-taking skills to good effect but again went for a lot of runs in the death overs.

The biggest worry for the team, however, is the lack of form of the two wrist spinners. High hopes had been placed on the duo to put the brakes in the middle of the opposition innings by knocking off a few wickets, but sadly, these have been belied. While spinners in most other teams appear to have adjusted well to the unresponsive and two-paced English wickets for the World Cup with their subtle variations, Chahal and Kuldeep have proved completely ineffective. Given the only chance in the tournament, against Sri Lanka, Ravinder Jadeja, however reminded the team management that his services are invaluable and cannot be ignored.

Given such a scenario, playing just five bowlers, in order to strengthen the batting line-up, has not gone well with former greats of the game. They feel that it’s too much of a risk going into the semi-final stage against the best teams in the world.

Despite relegating Australia to the second spot on the points table by an unexpected turn of events, India needs to bolster its bowling options if it  is to lift the cup. The team cannot afford to get into a situation where the opposition batsmen are successful in targeting one, or even two bowlers, as was witnessed in the game against England. The depth of the Indian bowling attack was thoroughly exposed in the match, resulting in a comprehensive loss, the only one for the team in the tournament.

Hinting at the Indian bowling lacking depth going into the most competitive stage of the tournament, England batting great Kevin Pietersen has favoured playing another bowler in Mohammed Shami. He believes that confident of their top order, and a reasonably sound middle order, the team can afford to drop Dinesh Karthik for the semi-final clash with New Zealand.

Feared West Indies pacer of old Ian Bishop has talked about teams in the last four needing to strike a balance between the pacers, who have without doubt dominated this edition of the World Cup, and good spinners, who have complimented the pacers by putting the brakes on the opposition batsmen despite not taking too many wickets.

If India play six bowlers, and include Shami, then they have two options – either to go with four pacers and two spinners, or an equal number of pacers and spinners. In the first scenario either Chahal, or Kuldeep, sits out, since Jadeja has been able to prove a point in the only chance he was given, the last league game against Sri Lanka. He also brings some more solidity to the middle order, apart from electrifying the team’s fielding performance. Choosing a 3-3 combination would obviously mean Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s exit, for sadly being completely out of sorts.

Yes, We Are Table Toppers, But Are We Playing Like Champs!, Lifeinchd

Irrespective of winning or losing the toss, or batting or bowling first, a strong and emphatic beginning is the key for India going into a do-or-die situation. The Men in Blue have had a chequered record against the Black Caps, with a 10-match lead head to head in one-day internationals, and trailing by a single match in ICC World Cups.

For this to happen, both Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul have to safely see off the cracking opening spell of left arm pacer Trent Boult, who has a particularly good record of taking early wickets against India. In the batting department Ross Taylor is the man to target considering the punishing mood he has been seen in against Indian bowlers, particularly spinners, in recent face offs between the two sides. This is not to say that taking early wickets is not important, given the hitting power of the Kiwi opening batsmen.

New Zealand outclassed India in the warm up match in preparation for this World Cup with Boult being the wrecker-in-chief. The league fixture between the two was washed out due to rain.   

Indian top order batsmen have done extremely well in planning their innings well, preferring to study the effects of the conditions for a few overs before unleashing their free-flowing stroke play. They have also not gone berserk with their hitting and gifting away their wickets in the process. No wonder India has the lowest dismissals in Power Play 1 among all teams, ahead of Australia, in this World Cup.

Yes, We Are Table Toppers, But Are We Playing Like Champs!, Lifeinchd

India go into the semi-final as favourites to win, but they will have to play out of their skins to beat the spirited Kiwis. The thousands of Indian fans, who far outnumber those of the rival team at any venue, and vociferously root for the Men in Blue, will continue to add that extra punch to the team campaign for the cup.

So guys, let’s start generating a Blue tsunami to psychologically drown the Kiwis even before their campaign begins on Tuesday ….. India! India!

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