India has what it takes to sit at the high table. But, it is not able to get past the finish line when it matters.
It is a little over 24 hours since India lost its semi-final match against New Zealand in the cricket World Cup being played in England. So, post-postmortems are in order still. They are coming thick and fast. Let me add mine, since I was on the ground for a match that was spread over two days.
But, like all post-postmortems go, this too has the benefit of hindsight. Therefore, I leave it to readers to take it with a handful of salt and not just a pinch of salt. Second, it is ‘a’ view and not ‘the’ view.
We are about 10 of us who had planned and paid for watching the cricket World Cup semi-finals and finals in England several months ago. Of course, at that time, there was no expectation that India would be in the last four.
But, since India made it to the last four comfortably, topping the league, after Australia had unexpectedly lost to South Africa in their last league encounter, and was facing New Zealand – a team that had lost momentum in the closing stages of the league phase, losing three of its matches – hopes and expectations were running high.
About six of us reached Manchester by train on Monday afternoon – Manchester Piccadilly Station. Manchester City itself presents the impression of a city past its prime. Most places, including the so-called monuments look like they need at least a coat of paint, if not full-scale renovation.
Finding homeless people on the street is not hard. The city claims itself to be one of the fastest growing cities in Europe and, to be fair, one sights enough overhead cranes. Tram service works but not cheap and English coffee is as lousy as ever. Back to cricket.
On our way to the hotel, we checked the odds Ladbrokes was offering. If you bet 5 pounds on New Zealand, you win 16.5 pounds if NZ ended up winning the match. If you bet 5 pounds on India, you would win only 6.5 pounds. Those were the odds on offer on the eve of the match.
Clearly, India was the favourite. It simply had to show up and it would be in the finals. That is what the fans thought and that is why the disappointment is deep and wrenching for many. Expectations were riding high. It is a case of ‘so near; yet so far away’ for the Indian cricket team. It has been the story of Indian sports in general.
We do not know if the players thought so too and whether they were complacent on account of that. One can always guess and come up with one’s pet theories. But, I think not.
To preview my conclusion based on proximate causes, I would state right up front that New Zealand assessed the conditions better than India did and adapted better. Of course, NZ won the toss and that helped. Teams batting second in this tournament had, in general, struggled to win. The toss plays such a crucial role in the outcomes. It is such a random thing and it should not have such a disproportionate importance in the outcome. But, it does. Hard to say if it did, in this match, however.
It was not an easy wicket to bat on, the atmospheric condition was heavy and the ball was moving around, at least in the first few overs. Indian pacers, though they bowled well, could not pick up more than one wicket in the first 10 overs. New Zealand picked up three and conceded fewer runs in the first 10 overs. On a pitch like this, a score under 230 could be chased down.
Anything above that was going to be harder to get was a view that I shared with my group, when NZ was batting. In fact, I said that India had to keep NZ under 227 that South Africa scored against them in the tournament’s opening game for India. In the end, India conceded 12 more than that. That was to prove important. NZ had not lost wickets and that explains the precious extra runs.
Their spinner bowled far better than ours. Yuzvendra Chahal ran in a little too fast for my taste and bowled too flat too. His last two overs went for plenty. Could India have gone with Mohammed Shami instead of Chahal considering that the forecast for the two days of 9-10 July were for rains, overcast conditions and low temperatures? Perhaps, they should have, considering that they were playing Ravindra Jadeja who bowled rather well for his 10 overs.
Should India have sent Mahendra Singh Dhoni up the order? From Sunil Gavaskar to friends in my group to my daughter’s group felt so. Well, I have a different point of view. The team management wanted someone in reserve to bat through the 50 overs and they were prepared to get some extra runs with hitters such that the pressure on Dhoni would not be too big. Further, of the three batsmen who went ahead of Dhoni – Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya and Dinesh Karthik – two did well.
Pant perished because he could not bear the thought of giving Mitchell Santner two consecutive maiden overs. Pressure got to him. Pandya, may be, thought it was time to accelerate. Karthik had done well to soak up the pressure but fell to what, some thought, was the catch of the tournament. On being sent in at number 5 or 6, if Dhoni had perished to Santner, then people would turn around and argue that, for better or worse, Dhoni should have been held back for this crucial chase, for India to bat deep. Remember, hindsight is 20/20.
As for those who blame Pant’s ‘rash’ stroke, here is Siddharth Vaidyanathan’s tweet:
Rishabh Pant 32 off 56 in a World Cup semi-final. The guy is 21 man. Leave your curses aside. Give the guy a hand. Top order fell like dominoes. The kid gave you some runs. May this be his first World Cup of many.— Siddhartha Vaidyanathan (@sidvee) July 10, 2019
‘Savour’ this statistic from Mazher Arshad:
In this World Cup, Dhoni has hit just one boundary off 114 balls against spinners. That is one boundary in nineteen overs!
That brings us to the man himself. Did Dhoni let India down in this match? I refuse to go along with that conclusion. His batting against Afghanistan showed no urgency. I was disappointed. Against England, people were surprised that he showed no intent towards the end. May be, he just could not time the ball. Australia could not do it against England today and only Jadeja saw the slower balls early and eased them for ones and twos, against NZ.
In the semi-final game against NZ, he had no choice but to do what he did because if he got out, the team had really no chance, even with Jadeja around. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Chahal and Jasprit Bumrah would not have been able to help Jadeja finish. A guess only, of course. However, the point is that it had become a percentage game for India.
No matter how brilliant he was (and boy, wasn’t he brilliant?), the task was always going to be a little too hard for India, needing a miracle for India just needed one stroke of bad luck or one mistake and it would be over. That is what happened in the second ball of the forty-ninth over for India – a stroke of brilliant cricket or a stroke of bad luck when Martin Guptill hit the wicket direct from a side-on view.
So, Dhoni waiting until the forty-ninth over to launch his counterattack was not such a bad calculation, in my view. In any case, as long as Jadeja was around, the latter was doing it brilliantly. As Kane Williamson put it, he was batting on a different pitch. To call such a brilliant cricketer a ‘bits and pieces’ player was a bit disparaging and offensive. But, Sanjay Manjrekar had been gracious enough to accept that Jadeja, in bits and pieces, had torn him to shreds. We should let that matter rest there. For the record, I agree with Harsha Bhogle that he should have been crowned the ‘Man of the Match’.
To sum up, on Dhoni, in my view, in the semi-final match against NZ, Dhoni did what he could. It is time to salute a legend and give him a warm, worthy and grateful send-off.
Connoisseurs would love this comparison of Javed Miandad and Dhoni:
As my friend Chandran summed it up well, if one had an umpire’s call going against you in a crucial LBW decision, if the fielder at point decides to pick this match to take a catch of the tournament and if the fielder manages to hit the stumps direct in the forty-ninth over without fumble, catching Dhoni millimetres off the ground (remember, Dhoni had run like a hare during his century stand with Jadeja), then, it was a day for India to lose. Too many black swans in favour of the ‘All Blacks’, as he put it. But, as Kaushik Rangarajan writes in Cricbuzz, the captaincy of Williamson was not ‘Black Swan’ but a de rigueur occurrence. One should not forget the calmness with which he pouched the skier from Jadeja.
I will end my analysis of proximate causes with this last link. It takes you to a series of interesting tweets that were posted on the eventual second day of the one-day international semi-final match in World Cup 2019.
Finally, let us turn to long-run factors, having analysed the proximate causes at length above.
It might be facetious to say that New Zealand won because India scored fewer runs than they did. It is not. India lost the match when three of its in-form batsmen got out for 13 runs. Now, this is where it gets interesting. Harsha Bhogle in his interview on ‘Centrestage’ did not want to use the ‘C’ word. But, he pointed to the fact that India, after having done well in the preliminary stages, had faltered in the knock-out stages in three major tournaments – 2015 World Cup, 2017 Champions Trophy and 2019 World Cup again.
Statistician Mazher Arshad’s tweet:
Sambit Bal’s statistics presents a stark picture:
Unbeaten till the semi-final that year (2015), they fell to Australia in their first knockout match; this time, they topped the league stage with only one defeat. In between these, there was the loss to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final. The common thread: the top three batsmen stomp through the league phase as if the stage belongs to them, but fail to turn up in the final.
The numbers couldn’t be starker. Put together, the top three contributed 3378 runs in these tournaments at an average of 73 but in the three matches that India needed to win, their total contribution was 109 at 12.1.
Another important factoid from Mazher Arshad:
Virat Kohli's average in three World Cup semi-finals is just 3.67.— Mazher Arshad (@MazherArshad) July 10, 2019
9 vs Pakistan, 1 vs Australia, 1 vs NZ
What are the reasons behind this? Thrice-in-a-row (not talking about Kohli alone but the top three and the team) is more than a coincidence. As to the real reasons, we can only guess. Is it that the burden of expectations and the pressure become a little too much to bear that the top players forget what brought them thus far?
Is it that they are overconfident and let their guard down? Is it that the other teams, feeling the underdog tag against India, crank up their game a notch or two to tilt the outcomes in their favour? It could be a combination of these three and more. The team would do well to confront this question and try to answer it for themselves honestly.
In other words, India has what it takes to sit at the high table. But, it is not able to get past the finish line when it matters. It has failed more often than it should have, for it to be attributed to bad luck. It is a case of ‘so near and yet so far away’ for India. Put differently, sustained excellence continues to elude India. Cricket epitomised it on 10 July 2019.
This article was first published on the author’s blog, and has been republished here with permission.