Never has so much been owed by so many to so few. In fact, just three.
This slight tweaking of Winston Churchill fairly conveys what India should be saying about their team’s chances in the cricket World Cup. Churchill’s famous line is apt, primarily because, like the World War that inspired this magnificent literary line, the theatre of the mother of all cricketing battles is England. But, with a twist: It is about India’s handful of heroes in a fight against England.
India had left for England with 14 men. But, the team’s prospects depended largely on three factors: The opening partnership, Virat Kohli’s consistency and Jasprit Bumrah’s magic and consistency. Everything else was either hope, like MS Dhoni rediscovering his finishing touches, or bonus, like some other bowler stepping up on a big day.
England has managed to whittle down India. For now, we know that in Shikhar Dhawan’s absence, there is no guarantee of a big, bang opening. And, it has divested us of that hope factor. Because, Dhoni has lost his batting skills that made him look like Bhīma with his legendary mace in the middle of Kurukshetra. Now, he is just an archer with just a few arrows in his quiver.
Seen from that perspective, the loss is a blessing. From now onwards, the onus would be on just three cricketers — Rohit Sharma, Kohli and Bumrah. If the others do something heroic, we’ll call it destiny. Serendipity — like a Rishabh Pant flourishing. Or, just coincidence — like a Kedar Jadhav producing an innings of substance.
Against England, none of that transpired. The bowlers — other than Bumrah who bowled yorkers at will — had an off day. On hindsight, Kohli might be revisiting his deision to go with two spinners on a ground with a 56-metre boundary. In his post-match interview, Kohli wryly remarked how such things (short boundary) fall into place randomly. He might be wondering had this post-match wisdom dawned on him earlier, maybe, just maybe, he could have got Bhuvneshwar Kumar instead of one of the wrist spinners.
No mistake, like in life, is a wasted opportunity in cricket. It can be a vital learning experience. There is every likelihood that India and England would meet again in another crunch game—a semi-final or the final. Lesson number one for Kohli from this game would be this: England play spinners really well, especially on flat pitches. So, try something different.
Against Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, the England openers were so brutal that they seemed bent on avenging some slight from the past. Lofted drives, switch hits, reverse sweeps, down the pitch shimmies, they had everything on display in the first few overs. That the two bowlers didn’t score centuries of their own is largely because of Ravindra Jadeja, who caught Jason Roy when any other fielder in the Indian team would have just watched the ball bounce a few yards inside the ropes and crash into the boundary.
If the right lessons are learnt, this isn’t really a loss. It’s what we call a learning experience. India must have learnt that they can’t chase down big totals. Not unless Sharma scores a big ton—maybe a 200. Not unless Kohli stays on till the end and converts his 50s into something bigger.
India would have also learnt that Dhoni is in some inexplicable frame of mind. Perhaps, he is trying to convey that he is ‘like this only. So take it or leave it.’ His ‘like this only’ avatar implies he would stutter against spinners, consume a lot of dot balls and try to hit big only in the last over. Essentially, he will play the waiting game and someone else will have to take the chances. With Jadhav playing a similar game, India’s lower-middle order is more a statistic than a threat.
This stubborn Dhoni is a bit of an irritant. His batting leads to two things – deceleration and desperation. With someone like Kohli batting at the other end, it means the batsman has to create extra opportunities to score while Dhoni blocks and builds. This pressure, as we saw against West Indies, ultimately leads to the fall of a wicket.
With someone like Pandya batting at the other end, it leads to something more lethal—doubt and a sense of defeat. When Dhoni struggles, it tells a youngster that there is something wrong with the pitch, or great about the bowling. So, his batting partner casts himself into the ‘Dhoni mould’. Dots, mishits, desperation and a palpable sense of giving-up follows. We saw this happen against England, when Pandya settled into a slumber and Jadhav walked out with shoulders drooping. The game was lost the moment Dhoni walked in.
The only take away from the defeat for us fans is this: The hopes of billion people rest on just three men. If we win it, so many would owe it to Kohli, Sharma and Bumrah.