In 1977, lead guitarist Brian May and lead singer Freddie Mercury led Queen on the Day At The Races Tour and, to their initial annoyance, the crowds at Bingley Hall in Stafford, England sang along with every number, stomping their feet, clapping their hands, creating an a-capella accompaniment to iconic numbers like Brighton Rock and Bohemian Rhapsody.
And then it clicked for May and Mercury. We should embrace this, they thought – and from that thought was born We Will Rock You, the most anthemic song of Queen’s oeuvre, a song that, barring a small guitar solo at the very end, is almost entirely a chant backed by rhythmic clapping and the pulse-pounding thump of bass.
It was the Queen anthem that boomed over the speakers at the Kia Oval as the Indian batsmen exploded in a death-overs assault where a combination of Virat Kohli, Hardik Pandya, MS Dhoni and KL Rahul plundered 116 runs off the last 60 balls.
The Oval was awash in blue, with the odd green-and-gold of Australia looking like an interloper at a family function. The crowd, with its chant of ‘India, INDIA’, provided the bass line to the percussive sound of bat smacking ball to every corner of the field.
There is a synergy at work: the crowds that throng venues where India plays feeds off the eye-catching exploits of the batsmen, and the batsmen in turn seem to cut and drive and flick and pull and lift and loft to the rhythms of the chanting crowds, much like how Brazilian football sways to the beat of the samba.
The opening passages did not foreshadow that barnstorming finish. When Virat Kohli opted to bat first on winning the toss, he said the pitch, already used in a game last week, looked flat and hard and filled with runs, with not much life in it for the quicks. Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc found out the truth of that – neither quick managed to get movement in the air or off the wicket. Any problems the Indian openers faced – and in the first five overs they faced plenty, with edges from Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan flying wide of the slips and with Dhawan copping a Cummins lifter on the thumb, necessitating running repairs – owed to pure pace.
Rohit played in his now patented fashion – starting slow, staying slow. He played out 14 dot balls in the first twenty he faced; when a Coulter-Nile cross seam delivery finally did for him, his 57 had taken 70 deliveries (81.4 run rate). India at that point was 127/1 (their sixth century stand against Australia, the most by any pair) – and 61 of the 135 balls bowled till then were dot balls.
It was Dhawan who, despite a disabling injury, ensured that India didn’t pay a price for his partner’s go-slow. Dhawan paced his innings to a nicety: he was 27 off 35 after 10; 62 off 60 after 20; 96 off 89 at the end of 30 – a progression that ensured that India’s run rate constantly hovered around the 5.5 mark, give or take a tick.
It was a superbly crafted innings. Once he took that hit to the thumb Dhawan, realising that he couldn’t pull off the bottom-handed big hits, changed his game, parked himself deep in the crease, and scored most of his runs through square and in the V with cuts, drives and the occasional guided pull.
The value of experience showed in his picking the right bowler to go after, at the right time. When Nathan Coulter-Nile was introduced as first change in the 8th over, Dhawan targeted him for assault; similarly, he went after Adam Zampa’s first over, as also Marcus Stoinis. By putting pressure on the back-up bowlers, Dhawan ensured that Finch had to keep using Cummins and Starc in quick bursts through the middle, thus reducing the number of overs they could bowl at the death.
Dhawan’s ability to keep the board ticking also meant that Virat Kohli, coming at the fall of Rohit, could take some time to settle. And he needed the time – Australia bowled to the default plan teams now use for Kohli early in his innings: just back of length, in the channel around fourth/fifth stump, with at least one widish slip for the edged drive.
Kohli needed time to get his strokes flowing, and Dhawan gifted him that time by taking on the onus of acceleration. Thus, it didn’t matter that at the 30 over mark Kohli had made just 13 off 21– he could bide his time while Dhawan eased past his third World Cup century. It was Dhawan’s third ODI century at the Oval; it was also the 27th century by an Indian batsmen in World Cups, the most by any country.
The innings progressed as smoothly as the baton exchange in an Olympic final: Rohit handed off to Virat after a 127-run opening stand; Dhawan handed off to the promoted Hardik Pandya after a 93-run second wicket partnership (87 balls).
Pandya was promoted to put pedal to the metal, and did he ever – though he had no business doing what he ended up doing. His first scoring stroke was an edge off Coulter-Nile’s scrambled seam bouncer that Carey, behind the stumps, spilled. And that dropped dolly exacted a price.
A facet of Hardik’s impact game is that he needs no time to settle – here, he was stroking at a rate close to 200 straight out of the gate; his innings was a symphony of power-packed lofts into the stands behind midwicket and extra cover and deft touch strokes or clubbed drives that targeted the straight and square boundaries. It is not often that Virat Kohli, when he is going good, is overshadowed – but Hardik shaded his captain with ridiculous ease, contributing 48 off 27 balls to an 81-run partnership for the third wicket (Kohli 31 off 26).
In a frenetic last five overs, MS Dhoni (27 off 14) and KL Rahul (11 off 3) produced stupefying cameos that abetted Kohli’s trademark striking in the V and square on both sides, while the whiskey-voice of Freddie Mercury boomed out a promise to rock you and the crowd erected a wall of noise around the stadium.
Australia looked sharp with the ball and in the field when the opening partnership was ambling along, but once India shook the lead out, it all unravelled in a hurry. In common with sides such as South Africa and the West Indies (among the leading nations), Australia has a serious drought of bowling resources.
Starc and Cummins can be deadly given a bit of help from conditions, but if they fail to strike early, as happened here, the bowling combination of Coulter-Nile (1 for 63 in 10), Zampa (50/0 in six), Maxwell (45/0 in 7) and Stoinis (two wickets in the last over, for 62 in 7) lack the penetration to back up the two spearheads. This in turn transfers pressure onto the two lead quicks – and Starc crumpled under the strain, his last three overs going for 40.
In the event, Australia’s weakness – the bowling -- proved to be India’s strength. Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar set the tone with razor sharp opening spells that showcased their respective skills: Pace and lift off length for Bumrah, who works angles like an ace architect; wicket to wicket lines just back of length from Bhuvi. More to the point, on a wicket that gave them nothing they tied down the Aussie openers with perfect execution of plans: No width for Warner, no length for Finch, no room for either to get under the ball.
Bumrah’s first spell was 3-1-12-0; Bhuvi went even better with 5-0-12-0. And when they were done, Hardik Pandya and Kuldeep Yadav, then Yuzvendra Chahal, came in to exercise relentless control in the middle phase. Hardik bowled the hard lengths; Kuldeep put his body more into his deliveries and as a result turned the ball more; Chahal bowled so slow that it seemed, to perpetuate a cricketing quip, that if he didn’t like what he bowled he could run after it and fetch it back for a do-over.
A hyper Indian TV channel once had a program called Match ka Mujrim. If it was still running, today’s candidate would be an easy pick: David Warner (Carey would be runner up for his game-changing drop of Hardik). Not only did he struggle to buy a run against the relentless discipline of the Indian bowlers (at one period he went 15 balls without scoring a run, and his eventual 56 took a traumatic 83 deliveries), he managed to stall the momentum of his partner and captain Aaron Finch, and eventually got him run out calling for an impossible third.
Steve Smith anchored with his usual competence, but you can’t have two anchors at the same time and expect to get anywhere. If the Smith/Warner stand of 72 took 70 balls, the 69-run Smith/Usman Khwaja association took 72, and while Australia was on par with India’s score throughout (after 39 overs, India were 230/2 and Australia, at that mark, 235/3; after 44.2, both sides were on 282, except that Australia had lost six wickets to India’s two).
India had two things Australia didn’t, though. The first, bowlers who could take out wickets at crucial moments – Bumrah, who came on in the 37th over to take out Khwaja; Bhuvi, who came on for the 40th and in the space of three balls trapped Smith LBW and bowled Stoinis with an in-cutter. And the second was a batsman who, with 115 needed from 60 at the death, could combine the talents of Kohli, Pandya, Dhoni and Rahul in one.
Maxwell, who was sent in ridiculously late at number five, did his best but after watching two of his mates walk back in the 40th, launched a slog at Chahal only for Ravi Jadeja, subbing for Dhawan, to take a superbly judged catch running in from deep midwicket. Carey and Coulter-Nile, who had between them hijacked a game from the West Indies the other day with spectacular hitting, were the last hope -- but this Indian attack has the ability to stay disciplined under pressure.
Kohli’s boys in blue sealed a second win and with it, made a strong statement with an all-round performance with the bat, ball and in the field, effortlessly outplaying the five-time champions in all aspects.
Yet, cricket tragics will think the 352 India put up was seven runs too short. Remember the bull ring at Johannesburg, March 23, 2003? When Australia, powered by a blistering Gilchrist-Hayden opening stand of 135 off 14 overs and a magnificent unbeaten century by then captain Ricky Ponting, powered to 359/2 and defeated India by 125 runs?
Ponting, now assistant coach to an Aussie side that came into this match with an 8-3 win record against India in World Cups, watched poker-faced as the wheel turned full circle.
Revenge, they say, is best served cold.
PostScript: Carey got to his 50 in just 25 balls, the fastest in the Cup beating Gayle’s 33-run effort; he just about cancelled out his costly drop.