T20 WC: England’s depth versus India’s flair in epic semi-final
It was only five months ago that India travelled to England for a full tour that also included three Twenty20 Internationals, and returned with a creditable 2-1 score line. To beard England in their own den in a format that they have shaped and redefined in the last few years was a terrific accomplishment, but as Rohit Sharma pointed out on Wednesday, that will count for little more than confidence when the teams square off on Thursday night.
At stake is a place in the final of the T20 World Cup, a tournament both teams have won previously. India’s only success came in 2007 when, against all odds and expectations, Mahendra Singh Dhoni hauled his team to the pinnacle. England, perennial underachievers in white-ball cricket despite introducing both one-day and T20 cricket to the world, finally tasted success in the Caribbean in 2010. But since then, neither side has really made a strong pitch for top honours, even if India did reach the final in Bangladesh in 2014 and West Indies needed four sixes from Carlos Brathwaite in Ben Stokes’ last over to quell England in the title round two years later at the Eden Gardens.
The Adelaide Oval, the scene of one stirring win each for both sides in this tournament, will be the backdrop against which their latest scrap for supremacy will unfold. A week ago, India had to stretch every sinew to beat back Bangladesh’s spirited assault on a DLS-adjusted target, scraping to a five-run win on the back of a nerveless final over from Arshdeep Singh. The left-arm quick has been the spearhead of the Indian attack, a tribute to the strides he has made in the last few months despite being the youngest and least experienced of all Indian bowlers on display.
England, whose campaign has been equally dramatic, needed a sensible, calm, undeterred unbeaten 42 from Ben Stokes to edge out Sri Lanka in a run-chase that seemed regulation for the most part before a stunning middle-order collapse drove the dugout to the edge of their seats. Until then, Stokes hadn’t made a batting contribution worth the name but by having played himself back among the runs with the knockouts beckoning, the talismanic all-rounder has laid down a marker.
Stokes is one of a handful of game-changers within the England camp. Indeed, so confident and settled are they in their approach and thinking that they have only used 11 players in the tournament so far. The virtues of consistency in team selection can never be exaggerated, though England could be confronted with a changed dynamic following the groin injury in that Sri Lanka win to Dawid Malan that has put his participation in the semifinal in jeopardy.
Jos Buttler, who has taken over as skipper from Eoin Morgan, and Alex Hales are as dangerous an opening pair as any, and if they haven’t been able to lord the Powerplays like usual, it’s entirely down to the fresh surfaces and the bowler-friendly conditions in the tournament thus far. With the first signs of summer making themselves felt and the sun beating down harshly, it is possible that batting conditions will improve exponentially, which will bring the power-hitting openers from both sides into more influential play.
KL Rahul seems to have found his feet after a hesitant start, but Rohit is due a Rohit-esque knock, having meandered through the Super 12s with just one meaningful contribution against his name, against the Netherlands. The lack of substantial opening partnerships, however, has hardly impacted Virat Kohli or Suryakumar Yadav, the two batting superstars of whom at least one has played the lead role in each of India’s four victories.
In Hardik Pandya, India have an all-rounder who can match Stokes stroke for stroke, ball for heavy ball. Pandya has been a bigger force with the ball than bat, using his preferred short-ball mode of attack to good effect on the big grounds here where clearing the ropes isn’t as straightforward as in other parts of the world. His bowling was sorely missed in the World Cup last year when India failed to advance beyond the Super 12s, but now that he is presenting himself as a full four-over bowler, there is a greater balance to the side that hasn’t been offset even by the absence of Ravindra Jadeja.
The strides made by Arshdeep and the felicity with which Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami have operated around him have ensured that at least until now, India haven’t missed Jasprit Bumrah terribly badly. Bumrah is irreplaceable, of course, and Rohit would have loved to have had his Mumbai Indians teammate’s experience and expertise to fall back on, but Arshdeep has filled the end-overs breach quite nicely while also striking telling blows with the new ball when he has found some swing and/or seam.
Spin, which was pencilled in as one of the more incisive weapons given the size of the outfields, has taken a back seat with the pacers calling the shots. Between them, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, the England spin twins, have taken only one wicket, while R Ashwin has had a greater say, using his craft and cunning to hold his own even when aware that he is the one most likely to be targeted by the opposition, he will expect more from himself, given how much of a competitor he is.
Even if there is little to separate the teams, the needle of favouritism might tilt towards England just that touch because of the profusion of all-round talent at Buttler’s disposal. The luxury of so many options could, at the same time, be a double-edged sword because captains feel compelled to use all of them even when not necessary. Buttler’s relatively new to international captaincy but especially in T20 cricket, captaincy is slightly overrated with the head coach playing the role of the manager in a football team.
England’s depth versus India’s flair is a wonderful prospect for Thursday. India hold a 12-10 edge in head-to-heads but again, like their 2-1 win in Old Blighty earlier this year, that will count for nothing. Skill, poise, composure and smart decision-making under pressure are non-negotiable, though a slice of magic won’t hurt, either.