Everyone expects – mandates – that sports journalists be unbiased. Everyone forgets that we are human; that we were fans before we became journalists. It is humanly impossible to be unbiased; the best you can do is be objective.
I’ve followed this World Cup in a schizophrenic state of mind. As a fan, I – in common with even the confirmed atheists and agnostics – hoped, believed that India would come out on top. But the objective journalist – who, when India plays, retreats to a very small, very dark corner of the mind – constantly whispered against that hope and pointed out why it was misplaced, and has been ever since the team was picked.
At inconvenient moments, that voice intruded to point out that a team looking for top honors cannot depend on two or three players to bat for all eleven. To nag that bits and pieces players are, looked at realistically, square pegs that will never fit into the round holes in the middle order.
For over a month I’ve kept that voice confined to its corner and yet, every now and again, it has crept into my reports to make inconvenient points. And finally today, as all those points came together, like well-placed explosives, to bring down the façade of India’s invincibility and put the Men in Blue out of the World Cup, that voice finally found full volume and said the four words no fan, and I am one, ever wants to hear:
I told you so.
The New Zealand Innings: At home to the West Indies in 1983, then captain Sunil Gavaskar, fed up of battling the Caribbean pace battery, dropped himself to number four for the Chennai Test.
Malcolm Marshall promptly blasted out opener Anshuman Gaekwad and number three Dilip Vengsarkar for ducks inside the first three balls of the innings. “Man,” snarked Viv Richards, lounging in the slips as Gavaskar took guard, “it doesn’t matter where you come in to bat, the score is still zero.”
Kane Williamson, who opted to bat first despite the dark, ominous “overheads”, will sympathize. In the last seven games, he has faced the second ball of the innings twice; he has come to bat in the first or second over four times; he has walked in to single digit scores five times. Here, he came in to the 17th ball of the innings, with the score 1 for 1.
Psephologists during elections and former cricketers before the toss are providers of unintentional comedy. “Flat, hard pitch, dried grass rolled in, very good for batting, 350 par,” was the unanimous verdict on the new pitch in use for this game.
At an Old Trafford ground wearing dark rain clouds like a fleece jacket against the chill, it took Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar an over each to mock that assessment. Bowling with a Test match field of three slips, the former got pace movement; the latter got bounce and seam both ways; the cracks in the pitch added to the degree of difficulty.
Between them they bowled 16 deliveries, and Bumrah got the extra bounce to force an uncertain Martin Guptill fending to a diving Virat Kohli at second slip, before the Kiwis managed to put a single run on the board.
Their combined first spell read 9-2-23-1; the Kiwis managed a mere 27/1 in the first powerplay – the lowest at that point, beating India’s dubious record of 28/1 against England. And that was prologue to the period that defined the Kiwi innings.
Hardik Pandya came on in the 10th over; Ravindra Jadeja in the 11th. At the end of 9 overs when the opening quicks were done, Williamson was 12 off 21 and Henry Nicholls 10 off 19. Pandya began showing signs of an adductor strain during the fourth over of his spell and hobbled off with six left in his quota – and underlined the folly of India going into games with just five bowlers. In the event Pandya, put back together by physio Patrick Farhart, got back on the park – but folly is folly, even if it does not extract a cost.
Jadeja is the Swiss Army knife of Indian cricket – a multi-use tool we forget about until moments of crisis. Put him on the park, though, and he brings subtle changes to how the team plays. When, for instance, Pandya was limping through his overs and putting the ball there and thereabouts, Jadeja twice produced diving stops to cut off certain fours, and came within a hairsbreadth of running out Williamson.
(Later, when play resumed on the morning of the reserve day and the Kiwis, with just 23 balls left to play, were running for everything, he put on a show, racing across the turf at deep backward square, picking up one-handed around closer to midwicket, and hitting the one stump he had to aim at to get rid of Taylor. The very next ball, he was in a two-saving position at deep midwicket when Latham tried to clear him; he reversed direction, covered the angle, and pulled off a two-handed lunging overhead take that can be eulogized, but not described).
In the 5th over of his spell, he showed why he is a must-pick. Having sussed Nicholls out, Jadeja went around the wicket to flight one on length on an off and middle line. The ball spun in through the gate to hit middle, ending a reviving 68-run partnership off 89 balls.
That was the first ball of the 19th over – but the key to the Kiwi innings was the last ball of that same over. It started out as nothing special: mildly flighted, on line of off. Williamson played what seemed a competent defensive stroke. But Jadeja had given it a rip; the ball hit the deck, gripped, bit, and turned square.
Williamson looked startled; at the opposite end Ross Taylor, new to the crease, had a “What fresh hell is this?” look on his face. And largely as a result of that scare, the batsmen lapsed into the sort of coma numbers can quantify, but words can’t quite capture. Some numbers:
The eight overs following the wicket of Nicholls produced a mere 20 runs. Williamson, with some help from a Chahal misfield, had taken four to third man off the last ball of the 14th over. The next four came 81 balls later, off the 3rd ball of the 28th with a Williamson slog-sweep off Chahal.
More: Williamson – one of the premier batsmen in the modern game – was 31 off 45 when Nicholls fell; the next 25 balls he faced produced just 8 runs, before he hit that uncharacteristic slog sweep.
The off-form Ross Taylor was, if anything, even more becalmed. At the end of the 35th over, he had managed a mere 24 off 51 deliveries. It was not about the runs so much as the manner of his play -- he was repeatedly beaten, by spin and pace, off outside and inside edges; his attempts to hook or pull the short ball ended in mishits that just eluded fielders.
There is the story of England batsman Robin Smith touring Australia and finding himself all at sea. After one particularly torrid over from Merv Hughes of the bristling moustache and in-your-face aggro, the bowler went up to Smith on the follow through and said, helpfully: “If you turn the bat over, mate, you’ll find the instructions on the other side.”
Williamson and Taylor batted as though they had somehow misplaced the instruction manual. Between overs 19, when Nicholls was out, and 34, Williamson managed to add just 52 runs off the bat off 93 balls (Williamson 29 off 44; Taylor 23 off 49). Jadeja buttoned one end down throughout this period, his first nine overs going for a scarcely credible 26 runs.
Too many teams in this Cup have been suckered into par-score data and off-base reads of the pitch into trying to do too much. The Kiwi batsmen deserve credit though for figuring out that the wicket wasn’t the road its cheerleaders suggested at the toss, and for being willing to prioritize adhesion despite a scoring rate that would have shamed Sunny Gavaskar, circa 1975 against England in the inaugural World Cup.
With overs running out and Taylor misfiring, Williamson had to go against his anchoring instinct. In Jadeja’s last over, the 35th, he thumped the spinner inside out to deep cover; then muscled one through midwicket, came within a toucher of being stumped, tried to step away and hit behind point only to see the ball miss the top of middle by the proverbial coat of paint. Two balls later the Kiwi skipper succumbed, trying to carve Chahal over the off side and slicing it to – but of course -- Jadeja at point.
The Kiwis promoted first Neesham, then de Grandhomme, to try and get some momentum. Neesham took a four off Pandya; an attempted encore hung in the sky for Dinesh Karthik to take. de Grandhomme, who seemed to be timing well, got cute with a Bhuvi Kumar slow bouncer and ran it off his bat into Dhoni’s lap.
When rain forced the players off in the 47th over Taylor, who had labored to 50 off 73 balls, was just beginning to find range and rhythm to his shots. The Kiwis were 211/5, and the statistic that stood out was that at that point, an incredible 153 deliveries – 25.3 overs – had not been scored off.
Also worth pointing out: an erratic Chahal, who since he gave up bowling googlies for Lent has become a one-trick pony, and an unfit Pandya had a combined analysis of 20-0-118-2; 11 of the 15 fours in the Kiwi innings at that point came off those two bowlers, as did the solitary six. The other three had a combined 26.1-2-89-3.
Resumption of play on the reserve day showcased a frenetic period of 23 deliveries that had everything: electric-heeled running; a fielding and catching show by Jadeja and, amidst all the mayhem, 28 runs added to set India 240 for a place in the final.
The Indian Chase: The bubble around the Indian team runs thus: At least two of India’s top three will always get runs and bat deep – they have scored nearly 70% of the team’s runs in this tournament -- and then the team, embarrassingly rich in finishers, will go big.
In previous reports, I’ve been pointing out that behind that Potemkin façade lurk vulnerabilities that could cost the side big time in the crunch. And it’s been clear all along that the team knows it has a problem – hence the selections of the eleven, always with an eye to lengthening the batting at the expense of going in a bowler less.
In the space of 11 deliveries that yielded one run and produced three wickets, that bubble burst with a deafening pop.
Rohit Sharma has five centuries this Cup – but he has equally benefited, to the tune of close to 400 runs, from five dropped chances, three of them before he had got to double figures, and a missed run out. The vulnerability was always there, it took the Kiwis three deliveries to cash in. Matt Henry bowled one fuller than length on the fourth stump, Rohit nicked off, done.
Trent Boult – aided by measured field setting by Williamson -- set Virat Kohli up and took him out with similar ease. His first ball to the Indian captain, with point left open, was an angling invitation to drive; the batsman obliged and was lucky to miss with the slash. Another one on the same line; then one straightening completed the set up. The fourth ball swung in on off and middle and straightened; Kohli tried to get out of jail with his wrists, couldn’t get his bat around his pad in time, and was confirmed LBW by DRS.
KL Rahul fell as you expect him to – with two top batsmen back in the hut, the opener painted himself into his usual corner, not sure whether to defend or play naturally, and nicked Henry off. India 3-5 in 3.1 overs.
Dinesh Karthik, whose presence in the playing eleven will take some explaining, played out 20 dot balls, then ran a four down to third man and shortly after, fell to a combination of a desperate carve at Henry and a brilliant take by Neesham at backward point, who flung himself to his left and picked up a one-handed blinder as the ball died on him. India 24/4 at the end of ten overs – and holders, for the second time in the tournament, of the record for the lowest powerplay score.
Watching all this from the other end was Rishabh Pant, over whom Karthik was preferred in the original squad; who was shoe-horned into the team as “cover” for injured opener Shikhar Dhawan, and finally bedded down in the number four slot. Pant, walking in with the score two for five in the third over, showed why commentators and analysts do players a disservice with their casual labelling.
Pant is “an exciting young talent” who “plays unusual shots” and “can turn the game around” but he is a “hit or miss player” who can oscillate between the match-winning and the wince-inducing: isn’t that how he goes?
And yet, he was the only batsman in the top six who figured things out and settled down to play a Test-style knock. Committing quickly to either front foot or back, always behind the line of the ball, eschewing his attacking impulse without however letting the scoreboard go into terminal coma, he produced a fine 32 (56 balls) and batted like one to the manner one. I guess it is only fitting that he fell to his one weakness – like Virender Sehwag, Pant doesn’t believe that spinners have any business on a cricket field. Mitchell Santner came in for the 23rd over, and Pant promptly swung him straight down the throat of midwicket.
Hardik Pandya is a great finisher – but a finisher is, by definition, not a player who should have to walk out to face the 11th over of an ODI. To his credit, he did the best he could, resisting temptation, and playing shots only to the rare hittable delivery. With Pant at the other end, it worked; between them they kept the board ticking over, albeit slowly.
Once Pant left and was replaced by MS Dhoni, the oxygen went out of Pandya’s game. Dhoni, per usual, turned singles down, pushed the ball around the packed infield, and cautioned his younger partner whenever he showed an inclination to go hard, or try for a tight run.
If you are a Pandya, there is just so much of that kind of play you can stand before your human urges take over. Mitchell Santner had bowled 5-2-5-1; the overs were ticking by and India had made only 21 off the 40 balls of their association. So, like Pant before him, Pandya went after Santner, picking a ball too full for the slog sweep and putting it high for Williamson at midwicket to judge well and hold.
That was the stage for a player who has throughout his career been making statements that have been as often ignored to make one more. Jadeja came out and batted as if everything that happened before was in some alternate universe. He found gaps where none existed before; he smacked the seemingly unhittable Santner, twice, for sixes and was he senior partner in a partnership of 53 off 56 – of which he scored 36 off 31 while Dhoni went 12 off 22. (The 100 of the partnership came off 96; Jadeja 69 off 52, Dhoni 34/61).
Single-handedly, with bat, ball and in the field, this most neglected of players gave even atheists a reason to pray. Easing through the gears effortlessly, he got to his 50 off just 39 deliveries (Dhoni 28 from 52) – and then iced that cake when he picked a slower one from Lockie Ferguson and punched it straight back over the bowler for six.
The last ten overs – with India needing 90 – are the reason we watch sport. 11 men in black, two in blue, all under immense pressure producing a display calculated to induce coronaries. Brilliant fielding, desperate bowling, a batting masterclass from Jadeja…
The Kiwis looked down and almost out; Matt Henry was bowled out in the 47th over; in the 48th, Boult was bowling his last. The Kiwis had to get two overs from one of the lesser bowlers – but with MS taking singles and giving it back to Jadeja (77 off 59) the southpaw, on whom the entire onus of scoring had fallen, finally succumbed, hitting Boult high for Williamson to hold at mid-off; the ask at the end of that brilliant knock was 31 from 12.
A Dhoni uppercut over point off Ferguson’s first ball of the 49th produced six – but the day still had one magic moment up its sleeve. Ferguson bounced, Dhoni fended, the keeper raced after the ball on the leg side leaving the stumps untended -- and Martin Guptill, at the very end of a miserable World Cup, raced in, picked up and, under immense pressure to produce a direct hit or risk overthrows, hammered down the stumps with Dhoni out of his ground.
Dhoni had “taken it deep”, as is his wont, ignoring singles, riding out dot balls; he had left the job unfinished, as happens too often these days – and that was effectively that.
Much had been made of New Zealand getting a washout against India, sharing points and, ultimately, qualifying for the knock outs at least in part because of that result. It took a rain-interrupted two-day ODI to make the point: In sport, there is no such thing as a sure thing; equally, every underdog has his day.