India’s victory over Aussies reminiscent of Tolkein’s heroes

Irfan Pathan had retired from all forms cricket in January this year. Photo: PTI

If you believe in coincidences, India’s victory over Australia should be a valid reason to stock up on the champagne. In the history of the cricket World Cup, every time India have beaten the Aussies in the first encounter between the two teams, they have gone on to win the tournament.

Even if you don’t believe in coincidences, the win should be good enough reason to convince us about the bright prospects of le Blues. On an Oval pitch, where even Geoffrey Boycott’s proverbial mom could have hit it out of the park with her toothbrush, India kept the game under control for almost 100 overs against a side packed with batting machines. The performance should give us hope that on July 16 the Cup is coming home.

Great teams play like the fighters in the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’. They come at the rivals one by one, wielding their weapons of choice like Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn while someone adds a bit of wizardy like Gandalf. On Sunday (June 9), almost every member of the team played like a character from JRR Tolkien’s imagination.

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The wizardy came up front from Shikhar Dhawan. Before the game began, there was fear in the Indian fans that Dhawan was going through a lean phase. This subconscious fear was reflected in the choice of KL Rahul as the third opener, who, at the present in playing in the middle order.

Over the past few months, Dhawan was particularly vulnerable to left arm fast bowling. Having got out to left arm seamers who got the ball to pitch on the middle stump and then swerve away from him, Dhawan was seen as a potential quarry for Mitchell Starc. But, Dhawan had a different plan for the day.

Dhawan’s vulnerability against left arm pace was premised on the argument that he shuffles towards the off stump. On Sunday, facing Mitchell, Dhawan took a leg stump guard, exposing his stumps to the bowler. This minor adjustment helped him deal with the left hander’s angle effectively, giving him a little more space to deal with balls moving away from him. And the plan worked.

In his 109-ball innings, Dhawan had control over almost 90 per cent of the balls. He missed just once, playing a short ball a little early at the start of the innings and getting hit on the thumb. Apart from that, his innings was pure magic—a master class in the art of cover drives, cuts and pulls. Against spinners he jumped out of the crease at will, toying first with Adam Zampa and then with Glen Maxwell.

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On the basis of evidence on hand, it can be said that there are three great batting sides in this world cup—India, England and Australia. With their depth and variety, these teams are capable of putting up big 300-plus scores in almost every match. But, there is a minor variation in their styles.

England come out like a merry band of marauders, their guns blazing from the word go. They go hard at the bowlers in the first power play, raise the tempo in the middle overs and then unleash mayhem in the final ten, powered mainly by the fast hands of Jos Buttler and the workmanship of Joe Roots.

India—and even Australia—play to a different plan. They start slow, accelerate and then just go berserk. One of their batters, in this scheme of things, tries to rotate the strike, allowing the rest, as Virat Kohli said after the victory, to “express himself.”

The pivot’s role, this season, has fallen upon Rohit Sharma. On Sunday, Rohit played with soft hands, with his lazy elegance, as if he were building up a Test innings. When he fell, the role was assumed by Kohli, who, even at a strike rate of 90-plus, appeared to be content to pierce the gaps and give the strike back to Dhawan, Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni.

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Pandya, his cameo on Sunday has shown, could be the Lance Klusener of this world cup. He will come and swing his bat, play crunching drives and set the cat among the pigeons. Pandya, like Klusener holds his bat like a mace, hangs deep in the batting crease and just murders the ball. The good thing about Pandya is he has absolutely no respect for reputations—the Starcs, the Zampas, the Joffa Archers exist in this world only so that he could hit them in the second tier. He is going to be the X-factor in this world cup, a Svengali good enough to turn matches on their head with his performance.

India’s bowling is on the roll too. When Australia were chasing, the spinners choked them in the middle overs like Boa Constrictors, bowling slow and with enormous control on a flat track. And when Maxwell and Steve Smith seemed to be on the charge, Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowled two beauties. One of them skidded on to hit Smith just inside the line of the leg stump, getting him caught leg before, a rarity for the star Aussie batsman. He got Mark Stoinis next with another one that jagged back just a little bit from outside the off-stump to clip his pad and hit the stump.

If India has something to worry, it is the absence of a fifth bowler. So far Pandya has done well with his slow cutters and bouncers. But, if he has a bad day, India would be left at the mercy of the dibbly-dobblies of Kedar Jadhav. But, for the moment, India is clicking like the Fellowship.

The Cup, like in 1983 and 2011, when India announced their intentions by beating Australia, has a good chance of coming home.