Before the game, Virat Kohli resisted all attempts to talk up the “pressure” of an India-Pakistan encounter. It’s just another game, he said; we are not worrying about who we are playing, we are focused on our game.
Against that, pretty much every Pakistan player past and present – and the current coach -- talked up the contest, talked endlessly about what a big game it is, talked of the pressure…
In his book the Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes made the point: “Commentators,” he wrote, “say again and again: ‘And now it’s all about who wants it more.’ Actually, the victory can often go to the one who wants it less: the one who can take the competition in their stride, with relaxed muscles and mind. The one who thinks it really is life and death can get consumed by the madness of the occasion.”
India was focused, but relaxed and confident of their skills; Pakistan, consumed by the madness of the occasion, tried too hard, worked against muscle-memory and, eventually, crumbled to its 7th successive defeat against India in World Cups.
Here is the story, in ten vignettes:
#1: Before this game, Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur reportedly told his players, “You could be a hero… You do something incredible, you are going to be remembered forever.”
He would have been better off telling them of the virtues of patience, of discipline, of adherence to length and line. The wannabe hero constantly tries for the magic ball, for the over that inspires song and story – and that is how the wannabe hero goes to zero.
The first ten overs of the Indian innings exemplify this. At one end, Mohammed Amir rigidly observed the verities of line and length. Despite a propensity to wander onto the pitch on the follow through that earned him two official warnings inside three overs, Amir was superb. His first spell was 4-1-8-0; there were 19 dot balls in those 24 deliveries. Rahul bore the brunt, facing 17 of those deliveries, and did really well to keep Amir from breaking through.
Consider the briefer, but equally enthralling, contest between Rohit Sharma and Amir: Rohit tried to stand outside his crease to cut down the slant across that makes Amir so dangerous, and the bowler promptly sent down a perfectly directed bouncer to push him back. Batsman and bowler smiled at each other, appreciating the call and response, question and answer that is at the heart of any sporting contest.
Against that, Hasan Ali and Wahab Riaz kept pitching short, searching for that hero-making delivery – and Rohit pulled and hooked, Rahul flicked and drove, and India cruised to 53/0 in the first powerplay. 34 of those 53 runs came off the pulls and flicks. Rohit, who faced more of Hasan and Wahab, was 37 off 29 with five fours and one six, four of the boundaries and the one six all coming off pulls.
In match-context, what this meant was that the pressure Amir built at one end was dissipated at the other; it also meant that Rohit, who has a penchant for starting slow and who, in this innings, should have been run out twice in the opening powerplay, got going much quicker than his norm.
#2: As counterpoint, consider what happened when Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan teamed up. Imad, the left-arm spinner, came on during the powerplay; the wrist-spinner Shadab came in for the 12th over.
Shadab, who has struggled with injuries lately, didn’t hit his lines at the start; his first over went for 17 as Rahul and Rohit took toll. But then he settled, teamed up with the disciplined Imad, and helped Pakistan claw their way back into the game. In the five overs between 13-17, just 20 runs were scored. Rohit, who had gotten to his 50 off just 34 with six fours and one six, could manage just 10 off the 17 balls he faced during this period.
It was a classic demonstration of connecting up dot balls; of bowling in a partnership, of adhering to discipline and bowling to your strengths. Pity for Pakistan was, it did not last. Shoaib Malik came on in the 22nd over, pitched short, and Rahul pulled him for six; Mohammed Hafeez came on for the 22nd, started with a short ball and Rohit eased the four to long on; then Rahul played him inside out to the long on fence – and all the good work of those five tight overs was undone.
#3: Rahul’s average is 56, and here he made 57 before mishitting a cover drive. Fortune played a part in the dismissal: Wahab had just gotten his second warning for running on the pitch; he switched to round the wicket, the angle changed from slanting across to down the channel, and Rahul momentarily lapsed.
57 off 78 doesn’t look much to write home about, but the numbers don’t tell the story of how he absorbed the pressure of Amir’s opening burst under overcast skies, of how he kept rolling the strike over so Rohit, by then in full flow, got to face the bowlers he fancied, and of how smoothly the strokes flowed off the bat when Rahul allowed himself to play them.
#4: The trouble with Rohit Sharma is that in his 208-match ODI career (and counting), he has exhausted all superlatives. We hacks used to say of a Rohit innings that it was “brilliant”; then we had to go to “very brilliant”. Where to go now?
The best you can do is say Rohit scored 140 off 113 with 14 fours and three sixes (starting with a 33-ball 50 that is his fastest in this form), and let the reader – who has seen enough of the opener’s best to form his own mental picture – imagine the rest.
What stood out on the day was his wagon-wheel. 28 runs to and behind point spoke of his control of the cut; 19 between cover and extra-cover spoke of the ease of his drives; the 47 runs in the arc between square leg and long on spoke to the strength and control he has over the pulls and on drives.
#5: A vital difference between this Indian team and its predecessors is that this team, under Kohli, has internalized the importance of running between wickets. And nothing exemplifies this as much as the early part of the Kohli-Hardik Pandya partnership for the third wicket. In the first 14 balls of their association, there were two dot balls and one four – but also six singles and five hard-run twos, all of them singles that were converted into braces by quick calling and sprint-speed running.
#6: Virat Kohli played an innings of two halves – surprisingly off color by his standards at the start, he seemed to flick on his mental switch once Rohit got out. He was 30 off 39 when Rohit got out scooping Hasan Ali to short fine leg; the next 23 deliveries saw him score 41 runs even as first Hardik (26 off 16), uncharacteristically erratic on the day, mishit a ‘helicopter shot’ off Amir to long on and then MS Dhoni (1 off 2) nicked off against Amir immediately after.
The brief rain interruption at over #46.4 cued up a bizarre incident. The 7th ball after resumption was an Amir bouncer. Virat hooked, missed, and Sarfaraz held behind the sticks and went up in appeal. So did Amir, half-heartedly. The umpire was unmoved, but Virat (77 off 65) walked – and later, watched in astonishment as ultra-edge showed a flat line. The best explanation is that the handle of the bat creaked and Virat, hearing that noise, thought he had touched off.
Kohli -- who by then had crossed the milestone of 11,000 ODI runs off just 222 innings (54 innings lesser than Sachin Tendulkar) – had looked in the mood to take India single-handedly to the 350-mark that seemed inevitable when, after 38 overs, India was on 230/1 with Rohit and Virat in the middle.
#7: 88 in the last ten overs against this batting side might seem like a mini-victory, but Pakistan should in retrospect rue their indisciplined bowling. Hasan Ali went for 84 off just nine, the highest ever by a Pakistan bowler in ODIs; Wahab Riaz was equally prodigal, going for 71 in his ten; both paid dearly for their inability to bowl one side of the pitch, also for bowling too short too often, as underlined by the 15 fours they conceded between them.
An illustration: Amir came back in the 44th over, gave 12 runs and took out Hardik; in the 46th, he gave away four and got Dhoni; in the 48th, four runs again and the wicket of Kohli; the last over, with both Vijay Shankar and Kedar Jadhav swinging for glory, produced just nine. Against that, Wahab gave away 9 in the 47th and 12 in the 49th, including two over-lengthening wides.
Two bowlers giving away 155 runs in 19 overs for just two wickets is the antithesis of the “hero” Mickey Arthur was hoping for. Add to that Fakhar Zaman’s miss of one of the most obvious run out chance ever, off Rohit in the 10th over when the batsman was just 32 – and you had to say Pakistan paid for its indiscipline and lack of focus.
#8: Bhuvaneshwar Kumar was in the middle of a swing-bowling masterclass on a pitch mildly spiced by the rain, when he pulled up in the 4th ball of his third over with a bit of a hamstring niggle. Vijay Shankar was given the ball to finish the over.
His first ever ball in a World Cup – the 5th of the over – was full at a gentle 125k. Imam thrust his front foot down the pitch; the bat couldn’t come around the front pad in time, and he was nailed plumb. When Mickey Arthur said that stuff about “do something incredible”, Shankar must have been eavesdropping – this is the kind of moment that acquires mythical stature in the retelling.
Thanks to Bhuvi’s continued absence, Shankar had to continue bowling, and though his deliveries are glorified throw-downs, a combination of brilliant fielding in the ring, gun shy batsmen afraid of taking chances, and Shankar’s discipline in just keeping it wicket to wicket and not trying too hard, allowed him to keep things relatively tight.
#9: MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli. Fire and ice. And most times, it takes the ice-cold Dhoni to temper the captain, who has a tendency to overheat. For once, though, Kohli’s fire was untimely doused.
It happened in the 19th over. Yuzvendra Chahal to Babar Azam, beautifully bowled, the quicker, fuller ball after some flighted ones. Babar Azam, foxed by the change of pace, hit on the pad then bat. Kohli, at slip, appealed; Dhoni, behind the stumps, said nope, bat first. Virat allowed himself to be over-ruled – and on the replay, it turned out that Azam was plumb in front.
#10: More often than not it is Chahal who strikes hard during the middle overs while Kuldeep plays the perfect foil. Here, it was the left arm chinaman bowler who produced magic.
First, a classic left arm spinner’s wicket: a 78k delivery, floated up above the Babar Azam’s (48 off 57) eyeline, drifting across the right hander, then curving back in, dropping on length around off and turning sharply to hit middle through the gate. That was the last ball of the 24th.
The second ball of his next over, the 26th, was floated up on the line of middle and off, on a full length. Fakhar Zaman (62 off 75), who after an indifferent start had just begun to find the range and timing of his shots swept, as he had done earlier to good effect. But this time, Kuldeep had held it back a touch and spun it more; the resulting top edge was easily taken by Kuldeep’s spin twin Chahal at short backward square. Kuldeep’s double-strike in the space of three balls saw Pakistan crumble from 113/1 after 23 to 126/3 after 26.
And as often happens, two set batsmen falling set off the dominoes. Pandya came on for Chahal, Mohammed Hafeez (9 off 7) – who had launched a six off the second ball he had faced – tried to go big again with a flick, and picked out deep square leg.
The very next ball, Pandya put more shoulder into it and got it to lift off good length. Shoaib Malik, unprepared for the bounce, chopped on for a golden duck. In the space of 19 deliveries, Pakistan lost four big wickets for 12 runs, and that was the game, done and almost dusted. When rain interrupted again and the players walked off after 35 overs, Pakistan was 86 runs behind on Duckworth-Lewis and to compound their problems, Sarfaraz had managed to chop an innocuous Shankar delivery onto his stumps. Upon resumption, Pakistan were never going to get close to their revised target of 302 in 40 overs and ended their innings on 212/6.
Top sportsmen are fond of saying “you have to be in it to win it”. This was a case in point – India was “in” the game right through with bat, ball and in the field; Pakistan oscillated, switching off and, momentarily, on both when batting and fielding, and that made all the difference.
Pakistan – particularly Azam and Zaman -- can rue a squandered opportunity. Bhuvi Kumar was not able to come back, which left India seven overs short from one of its star bowlers. This in turn meant that towards the end, there wouldn’t be Bhuvi’s control at one end. Which meant a chance for Pakistan to catch up with the ask if they took the game deep.
The two set batsmen falling within three balls hurt, Hafeez losing his head didn’t help either. Mistakes like that against champion sides can cost you – and here, it cost Pakistan a seventh successive defeat against India in World Cups.