The biggest mistake during the knock-out stages of a World Cup is to call one team the favourite. Any cricket match during this stage is like a coin toss—it can flip either way, with almost equal probability of falling on either side.
So, let’s start by discarding the thought that India start the semi-final against New Zealand as frontrunners. No. Both sides start as equals, with near identical strengths and weaknesses. Just so that Indian fans don’t get carried away, the practice match between the two sides before the start of the World Cup should be adduced as a pointer to the strength of the Kiwis and India’s biggest worry—the early exit of its openers.
India have perfected a template in this world cup. They like to start slow, protect wickets, hang around till the 20th over and then see where it takes them. This formula is based on the strength of its top three and vulnerability of the middle order.
New Zealand turned this script on the head in the practice match. On an overcast day, with the ball seaming a bit, Trent Boult ripped open the Indian top order—Rohit Sharma 2, Shikhar Dhawan, and KL Rahul 6 — to ensure the middle order collapses under pressure.
Similar conditions and challenges await India at Old Trafford. There are thick, dark clouds in the Manchester sky, there is a possibility of intermittent rains and the Indian middle order is still struggling. To say India are the favourites would be an exaggeration. India had the opportunity to set this right against Sri Lanka. Having requisitioned Mayank Agarwal as a backup opener, India could have tried him out to send Rahul back to the No 4 slot. That would have left the team with Rishabh Pant, MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja as the other batsmen. That opportunity, unfortunately, was lost.
India, of course, have the advantage of playing a side that revolves around just one batsman—the New Zealand captain Ken Williamson. India know that if Williamson stutters, his side will fall. So, in the end, it is primarily about negating one bowler—Boult—and silencing one batsman—Williamson.
India have never played New Zealand in a knock-out game of a World Cup. All their previous encounters have either been in the league stage, or inconsequential. The last time India played New Zealand was in the super six phase of 2003. But, by the time the two met, India were virtually sure of a semi-final slot.
So, for both India and New Zealand, being together in a do-or-die game is a new experience. How they will react to this is something nobody can predict. But, it is certain that India will try to be cautious against Boult and New Zealand would strive to strike early. The game would be won or lost during those early exchanges.
At Old Trafford, India have history by their side. A month ago, on an overcast day, against a team armed with a bowler who could have made the ball seam, India beat Pakistan easily. Later, they returned to beat West Indies, albeit on a dry, sunny day on a pitch that was slow and helped spinners.
Under similar conditions, tempted by the cloud cover, Pakistan’s Sarfaraz Ahmed had opted to bowl first. It was a mistake that cost his side a chance to reach the semis. New Zealand, with Boult having the capability to make the ball seam, might be tempted to go for a similar gamble. India, of course, would like to bat first.