T20 World Cup: India has to crack Zimbabwe puzzle for semi-final slot
To call this India’s moment of truth will be an exaggeration, but a lot rides on the outcome of their T20 World Cup game against Zimbabwe. Victory will catapult them to the last four as toppers of Group 2 of the Super 12s, which will mean the first step taken towards ending a long drought for an ICC trophy.
Not since they snapped a 28-year wait between ODI World Cup crowns in 2011 have India endured such a barren phase. Their only T20 World Cup triumph came in the inaugural edition in South Africa in 2007, and their last significant title win was in 2013, when they defeated England in the final of the Champions Trophy.
India, the superior side
Given the fickleness of the 20-over format, it will be naïve to consider a win against Zimbabwe as a done deal, but unless the African nation plays out of its skin and India have their worst night of the tournament, it’s hard to see any result but an Indian victory at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on Sunday (November 6). Man for man, India are the clearly superior side and they have mounted the more impressive campaign so far, notwithstanding Zimbabwe’s phenomenal one-run upset of Pakistan at pacy Perth, of all places.
Zimbabwe’s campaign has gone dramatically south since a roaring start to the Super 12s. Having come unscathed from the first phase, they were fortunate to pick up a point against South Africa when on the verge of a heavy defeat, rain preventing the Proteas from batting out the five overs needed for a result. Then came the stunning win against Pakistan, where inspired by the indefatigable Sikandar Raza, Zimbabwe defended 130 with tigerish zeal, and visions of a surprise pitch for the semi-finals loomed.
They were in touch with Bangladesh for the most part of their third encounter, going into the last legal delivery with five needed, receiving a gift by way of a no-ball and still managing somehow to go down by three runs. It was a huge blow to their spirit, and they came unstuck badly in their next game against the Netherlands, thereby finding themselves static on three points after four games which guaranteed their elimination.
Rohit-Rahul partnership yet to click
Victory on Sunday will be massive for a side that doesn’t get to play the big boys of Indian cricket all that often. India and Zimbabwe have only played seven T20Is, the last of them six and a half years back; the demand for the Indian team and the need to give the emerging players enough exposure at the highest level has prevented the likes of Virat Kohli from playing against them since June 2010. For them to be able to bowl at Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav, now the No. 1 T20I batsman in the world, as well as Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul will be a huge opportunity for pacers Tendai Chatara, Richard Ngarava and Blessing Muzarabani.
On the same deck where India overcame Pakistan off the last ball two weeks back, there should be some purchase for the Zimbabwean quicks, who will fancy a dart at Rohit and Rahul. The skipper and his deputy have scored one half-century apiece but together, they have put on just 52 runs in four innings for the opening wicket, an average of 13 transferring immense pressure onto Kohli and Suryakumar. Fortunately, Nos. 3 and 4 have risen to the occasion but as India prepare for the next stage and a potential crack at England in Adelaide on Thursday if they reach the semis, they will want their openers to find more form.
As much as their opponents, Zimbabwe will also have to contend with the stage. No one in this squad has played at the MCG previously – the last of Zimbabwe’s two appearances at this hallowed venue came in 2004 – nor do they have any experience of what it is like to have more than 80,000 spectators cheering vociferously for the opposition. It can do one of two things – either spur them on to unprecedented heights or compel them to go into their shells. Coach Dave Houghton, the former skipper and a World Cup hero himself, has promised that his wards would ‘put pressure on India from the very first ball’, and if they manage that, we could have an interesting contest on our hands in a tournament where nothing has been predictable, not even the weather.
No rain threat
The rain/cold of the last 10 days has made way for warm weather in Melbourne, with the sun making a glorious appearance and the forecast for match-day encouraging. As if to soak in the sun and to showcase their intention of not taking Zimbabwe lightly, the entire Indian batting line-up turned up for Saturday afternoon’s optional training session after Kohli cut a cake to bring in his 34th birthday.
A return to the MCG must bring back happy memories for the former Indian captain, who has built spectacularly on his match-winning, magical unbeaten 82 against Pakistan. Two further unbeaten fifties in the next three games have made him this edition’s highest run-maker and the leading run-scorer in T20 World Cup history. Kohli has a great history with both this tournament and with Australia, where he made his maiden Test century in 2012, and it was perhaps to be expected that when the two come together, he will have a ball.
Most heartening from India’s perspective will be how well Suryakumar and young Arshdeep Singh, both on their first tours Down Under, have adapted to the conditions here with bat and ball respectively. Suryakumar has fronted up to pace as if he has done it all his life while Arshdeep, perhaps a touch expensive but understandable because he bowls the tough overs, has nine wickets against his name and bowled with the composure of a veteran. Around him, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami have been threatening without picking up adequate rewards while Hardik Pandya, with his hard lengths that are very difficult to collar on these big grounds unless he gets it horribly wrong, has provided value with bat and ball.
India will be gutted if they can’t crack the Zimbabwe puzzle on Sunday night, but the Africans have nothing to lose, so expect them to come out swinging. How many of those punches they manage to land is another matter altogether.