On the face of it, the clash between West Indies and India at Old Trafford, Manchester on Thursday, June 27 seems inconsequential, with the two teams at opposite ends of the World Cup league table. While the Men In Blue are on the verge of confirming a spot in the semi-finals, the Men In Maroon need a miracle and a half to make it to the final four.
Yet, recent matches have shown that there is no such thing as a sure thing. The West Indies can just look at Afghanistan for inspiration – Gulbadin Naib’s team were on the verge of causing one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, before falling just 11 runs short against India. If nothing else, the match showed that India, despite being one of the favourites, have their own share of flaws that can be exploited.
The need to adapt
The ability to adapt and change when the need arises is of utmost importance in any walk of life, and cricket is no exception. West Indies didn’t seem to have gotten this memo for a large period of this World Cup. During their first game which was against Pakistan, the Caribbean side produced a stunning performance to bowl the opposition out for 105. They used a short-pitched strategy and it worked like clockwork.
As they moved on in the tournament, they continued to use similar tactics. The results? Far from encouraging. While they took seven wickets with short of a length and short deliveries against Pakistan, they managed just nine wickets using those lengths in the next five matches.
Against England, they bowled 107 such deliveries in 33.1 overs and yet comfortably lost the game. You’d have thought that they would have learnt a lesson and changed their tactics for the next game against Bangladesh. But it was not the case -- they peppered the Bangladesh batsmen with short-pitched bowling and Mashrafe Mortaza’s side feasted, scoring 199 runs from 143 back of a length and short deliveries.
There are signs, though, that they might have finally changed their ways. In the game against New Zealand, they bowled only 90 such deliveries, which constitutes less than a third of the innings. Contrast that to the England and Bangladesh games where the length was dragged back for half of the innings.
Against India, the West Indian pacers would be best advised against going short as Plan A. India has been the best batting team against short-pitched deliveries at this World Cup. The Men In Blue have the highest average (43) among all teams against such deliveries, and that is no surprise as India’s top three – Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli – are all adept at playing the rising ball.
One of India’s main weaknesses during the middle overs over the last couple of years has been when MS Dhoni has come up against spin. Since 2017, the World Cup-winning captain has an average of over 100 against spin between overs 11-40 but a strike rate of just 58.9, which is the concern.
Afghanistan exploited this with its spin quartet to stall the Indian innings, but it won’t be as easy for the Windies to emulate that example. For starters, they need to get rid of India’s top order quickly in order to expose the middle order. And even if that happens, the West Indies have thus far picked just one wicket from six innings with spin at the World Cup. Thus, while India’s weakness is clear, it is equally clear that Windies does not have the weaponry to exploit it.
While Dhoni has struggled to get going against spin in the middle overs, the West Indian batsmen have failed to get a move on early in their innings.
Shai Hope, who came into the tournament in terrific form, has failed to achieve anything like a quick strike rate. While the West Indies aren’t short of big hitters, Hope’s strike rate of 35 during the first 20 deliveries of his innings adds pressure to the batsmen around him. Among all West Indian batsmen, he has the highest dot ball percentage (78.8) during this phase -- something he must set right if the innings is not to stall right at the outset.
Evin Lewis, who usually plays at a rapid pace, too has a strike rate of below 50 and a dot ball percentage of almost 70 during the first 20 balls of his innings. Chris Gayle’s inability to run quick singles could be one of the issues hampering Hope and Lewis, but it’s time West Indies find a way around this.
Shami loves the World Cup
While Hope and Lewis might try to score at a quicker rate during the first Powerplay, it’s unlikely to be a straightforward task for Jason Holder’s team as they are up against a world-class bowling line-up. While Jasprit Bumrah is the number one bowler in ODIs, Mohammed Shami is no slouch either.
Especially at World Cups, Shami is Popeye on a spinach diet. He has played eight matches in 50-over cricket’s premier tournament, and has picked up at least two wickets in seven of those games – and India have won all seven. The latest of those matches came against Afghanistan last Saturday at the Hampshire Bowl, Southampton where he became just the second Indian to take a World Cup hat-trick.
Shami also has an exceptional record against the West Indies. He has taken more wickets (24) against them than any other side, and was the Player of the Match when these two sides met in the 2015 World Cup.
The impact of Russell’s injury
Mercurial all-rounder Andre Russell has been ruled out of the World Cup due to a knee injury, and this is likely to have a big impact on the balance and attitude of the West Indian team. Russell’s importance with the ball is often understated; at this World Cup, no other Windies bowler has a better average (20.2) or strike rate (22.8) than him.
When it comes to the batting, there might be a thought that Carlos Brathwaite, who played a blinder in the side’s last outing, can negate Russell’s absence. But Brathwaite’s lack of consistency as a batsman doesn’t inspire confidence. The century against New Zealand was only his second 50+ score in 32 ODI innings, and he averages just 17.3 in the 50-over format.
Also, with Russell in the hut, the likes of Hope and Lewis could have used up a few deliveries at the start knowing that the Barbados all-rounder could catch up with the run-rate at the back end of the innings. Now, that luxury has been almost nullified since Holder and Brathwaite, despite their batting abilities, are not as proficient at playing the big shots as Russell.
But there is also the counter-intuitive argument: When Russell is in the team, top order batsmen can go slow knowing Dre Russ will play catch-up. Now that he is out of the tournament, the team has to factor that into account, and this could trigger a change in how the top and middle order approach their task. As always, time will tell.
Pitch and Weather Update
Old Trafford hasn’t been kind to spinners so far, with slower bowlers averaging 112.3 and conceding 6.4 runs per over here during this tournament. Indian left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav, though, bowled brilliantly here against Pakistan when he picked up two wickets at an economy rate of 3.5.
The weather forecast predicts a sunny day in Manchester on Thursday with very little chances of rain. This might further help batsmen on a ground where the average score batting first has been 341 at the World Cup so far.
Evin Lewis’ availability is a question mark after he suffered a hamstring injury in the field against New Zealand. Either Darren Bravo or Sunil Ambris could come into the team in case Lewis is not fit.
Evin Lewis, Chris Gayle, Shai Hope, Nicholas Pooran, Shimron Hetmyer, Jason Holder, Carlos Brathwaite, Ashley Nurse, Kemar Roach, Sheldon Cottrell, Oshane Thomas.
India are unlikely to make any changes for this game.
KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli (c), Vijay Shankar, MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal.