Where was this India in the first two matches? Why was this fearlessness conspicuous by its absence? What forced them to be diffident and withdrawn against Pakistan and New Zealand?
These are questions Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri would normally have been asking of themselves. The captain and the head coach are serving out their notice period, so to say, therefore the post-mortems will be left to their successors and to the millions of Indian fans to whom the powerhouse performances of the last two matches will come as scant consolation, given that their heroes’ survival in this competition now rests entirely in the hands of Afghanistan.
It was Afghanistan, paradoxically, who sparked a dramatic transformation in India’s approach. Heavy defeats to arch-rivals Pakistan and perennial ICC-tournament bugbears New Zealand meant Kohli’s side required help from elsewhere if they were to justify pre-competition favouritism and make the knockout semifinals.
But before they looked outward, India needed to keep up their end of the bargain. That meant winning their three remaining fixtures, winning them by big enough margins to convert a massive negative net run rate into a positive, hope-generating number. The first step in that exercise came on Wednesday against the feisty Afghans, well beaten by 66 runs. On Friday, Scotland were at the receiving end of a brutal awakening, destroyed by eight wickets with a stunning 81 deliveries to spare.
It was the kind of performance befitting one of the strongest sides in the world, never mind their inexplicable implosions at the start of the tournament. It might be tempting to write it off as having come against only Scotland, and with due respect, the Associate nation from Europe is not the most formidable opponent. But for India, this was less about the opposition and more about themselves. This was about reiterating to themselves that they weren’t as bad as their two opening salvos might suggest. This was about trying, however unsuccessfully, to scrub the bitter memories of the New Zealand game in particular when, in 13.3 more overs than against Scotland, they only managed an additional 21 runs.
For all their muscle-flexing of the last three nights, though, India need Afghanistan to bail them out. The Asian neighbour will lock horns with New Zealand on Sunday afternoon, harbouring hopes of a sucker punch that would keep their own challenge alive. Afghanistan aren’t unaware that a straightforward win won’t suffice because India don’t play until more than 24 hours later, against Namibia, and will know exactly what margin they will need to win by to go through if Afghanistan best New Zealand. Friday night’s pyrotechnics have catapulted India’s net run rate to 1.619, easily the best among all teams in their pool. Of course, all of this, and the final Super 12 match in Group 2, will only be of academic importance if Kane Williamson’s men overcome the intrepid Afghans and thus go through as the second-placed side, behind Pakistan.
Apart from vindicating the value of not going into one’s shell, the Scotland lashing again brought to the fore the advantages of having a sixth bowling option, whether used or not. Birthday boy Kohli did not feel the need to turn to Hardik Pandya because his five frontline bowlers were more than adequate. But the confidence that he could turn to the Baroda all-rounder if required allowed the captain to bolster his spin resources, Varun Chakravarthy returning to link up with Ravindra Jadeja and R. Ashwin.
That meant India had a balanced look to their attack for the first time in the World Cup – three pacers, three spinners, all bases covered and with the skipper not having to look around the park trying to see who to turn to in case one of the specialists had an off-day. In so many ways, for all their modern approach to the sport, India are an anachronism in the T20 game – they have batsmen who can’t bowl and bowlers who can’t bat, which is how 50-over cricket was largely played up until deep into the 1980s, if not the early 1990s. As Rahul Dravid prepares to take charge of the side in a little over ten days’ time, he will be mindful of the need to correct this skew and seek out greater all-round options if India are to last the course in multi-team, and therefore multi-challenge, events.
The ruthless annihilation of Scotland was the perfect example of how champion sides put upstarts in their place. The Scots had no great pretensions, their cricket having gone south since the surprise win against Bangladesh in the first phase. They have been the weakest link in their pool, not posing a token threat even to Namibia who have far less experience of playing as a team in a competition of this magnitude, and they played like the undercooked, overmatched outfit they are. Where India impressed was in not letting their intensity flag even though resistance was minimal. In the past, India have been guilty of playing to the level of the opposition and not displaying the mercilessness that is a must for sustained excellence on the global platform. The constant training of the heavy weaponry on a hapless opponent who had brought a pocket knife to a gunfight might not have made for pretty viewing, but professional sport isn’t always about beauty and aesthetics and graciousness in execution.
If India have played a more complete T20 game, that’s hard to unearth. The Scots were blasted out in 17.4 overs for a paltry 85, their last four wickets going down for as many runs in 10 deliveries. The pace of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami was too hot to handle, the guile of Ravindra Jadeja on a slightly helpful surface an unsolvable mystery. Scotland’s cup of woe overflowed when KL Rahul breezed to a half-century in 18 deliveries, ensuring that the entire match only lasted 24.1 overs. It might count for nothing in the final analysis, but it sure was breathtaking while it lasted.