Stern test of skill and nerves

After turning their fortunes around in terrific fashion, Dhoni's men target Australia's scalp at Sydney

Stern test of skill and nerves

It was a sort of déjà vu for the Indian journalists covering the World Cup when they spotted Shane Warne at Australia’s ‘nets’ where the leg-spinning great rolled his arm over for about three overs and repeatedly engaged himself in discussions with their lone specialist spinner Xavier Doherty and some of the batsmen.

Warne had dropped in at South Africa’s training in Dhaka, a day before they were to play India in the World T20 semifinal last year. The Australian great had bowled for a few minutes to Proteas’ batsmen and, watching from a distance, he appeared to have passed on some leg-spinning tricks to Imran Tahir. Warne’s brief stint had little impact on South Africa’s spinners as India cantered to a six-wicket victory while chasing a target of 173.

Off-spinner JP Duminy went for 29 from his three while Tahir was taken for 30 off his four. India, however, know their World Cup semifinal clash against Australia on Thursday will be anything but a canter.

Despite the talk about the likely scenario of the pitch assisting the spinners, India know their biggest challenge will be to negate Australia’s pace bowling threat. Mitchell Starc has been their lynchpin with the ball while the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Josh Hazlewood can be equally devastating. It will be the first big test for the Indian batsmen who have been in red-hot form. When they step on the Sydney Cricket Ground, they not will be up against the mighty home team but the history as well.      

In 13 completed matches here, India have beaten Australia just once -- in the first final of the 2008 CB Series — setting up their only tri-series triumph in Australia. The last time the two sides met in an ODI was on January 26 when heavy, persistent showers washed the match away. Exactly two months after that abandoned game, India lock horns with the hosts but unlike the last time, when MS Dhoni’s team appeared to have forgotten the art of winning matches, they are a vastly different outfit now.

From the slow turner of Adelaide to the bouncy Perth to the belters of New Zealand, India have done exceptionally well in different climes and conditions, and have exceeded expectations, perhaps even their own. The finest feature of India’s unbeaten run to the semifinal has been that they have not depended on just two or three individuals to deliver the results. Almost every match has thrown up a new hero and that’s the sort of confidence you need going into a crunch game like this.     

The start will be crucial against an attack as potent as Australia’s. At least one of the openers needs to go big to allow the likes of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Suresh Raina the time and the freedom to cash in in the middle and the back end of the innings. Though batting becomes a bit easier with the dew coming in in the night -- the pitch tends to become a bit faster and bowlers find it hard to grip the wet ball – teams generally prefer to bat first to avoid the scoreboard pressure.

Indian bowlers have done a commendable job so far. They are the only side to have bowled out all of their opponents and have adapted to the conditions admirably well. While the Australian tour has been taxing on their bodies, the long stay has helped them understand and master the conditions. But India may still prefer to set up a total rather than chase it. 

Tough as they are, Australia will be even more formidable in home conditions. Whether or not India carry the psychological scars of the summer where they couldn’t win a single match, Australia will definitely feel that edge. They have an explosive opening pair in David Warner and Aaron Finch and are followed by Steven Smith whom the Indian bowlers found hard to dismiss. Michael Clarke provides stability while Glenn Maxwell can leave behind carnage if not eliminated early.

India, however, will look exploit some of the chinks in the Aussie ranks that other teams have exposed during the course of the tournament. Finch’s runs have dried up since the century against England in their first match, Clarke looks a bit iffy and Shane Watson has a weakness against short balls. The key, though, lies in executing all the plans that India’s strategic team will have drawn up.

India

Top performers: Shikar Dhawan (367 runs): Has batted himself back into form and will have to continue the good work. His partnership with Sharma at the top will be crucial.

Virat Kohli (304 runs): He has failed to convert his starts after scoring a ton against Pakistan in the opening match.

Mohammad Shami (17 wickets): Has impressed with his ability to bowl at a lively pace and clever use of the bouncer.

Key to beating Australia: Need to bat well against Mitchell Starc in the opening overs and Kohli needs to bat long against the co-hosts who have been unbeaten against India in the four months across all formats.

Australia

Top performers: Glenn Maxwell (301 runs): The middle-order batsman has scored 66, 1, 88, 102 and 44 not out in five knocks and also took five wickets with his off-spin.

David Warner (288 runs): Warner made the most of the Afghanistan bowling, scoring 178 against them in Perth.

Mitchell Starc (18 wickets): The left-arm seamer is second in the list of wicket-takers. He has bowled fast and accurate.

Key to beating India: Starc will have to make early inroads and the frontline batsmen need to deliver against India's bowling attack which has dismissed opponents in all seven matches so far.

FAST FACTS

This is the first World Cup semifinal between these teams. Previous World Cup knockout stage matches have produced one win apiece (Australia won the 2003 final, India a quarter-final in 2011).

Australia have won their last 12 completed one-day Internationals on home soil.

Glenn Maxwell has scored 77 runs from the 54 balls R Ashwin has bowled to him in ODIs. He has been dismissed once. He also has the lowest dot ball percentage (30.5%) in the tournament, minimum 50 balls faced -- he has hit 301 runs off 164 balls.

 Rohit Sharma has hit 124 runs from the 108 balls James Faulkner has bowled to him in ODIs, without being dismissed.

Mohd Shami (69%) and Mitchell Starc (68%) have the two highest dot ball percentages in the tournament, minimum 50 balls bowled.

 Rohit Sharma vs Mitchell Starc

Rohit Sharma struck a timely century against Bangladesh in the quarterfinal and had scored a hundred when he last played Australia in a one-day international. So, he will be the one that Australia will want to target to scythe through India’s batting line-up. Rohit is crucial to India getting a good start with the ball just as Mitchell Starc is to Australia to make early inroads.

Starc has been in red-hot form, he is fast and swings the new ball both ways. He has bagged a bucketful of wickets in this tournament and he will be the key component of Australia’s pace unit. When Rohit struck a century against Australia in the tri-series, Starc had claimed six India wickets. And as such the battle between the stylish right-hand batsman and one of the graceful left-arm quicks will be fascinating.

Glenn Maxwell vs R Ashwin

There is nothing much one can do when Glenn Maxwell gets stuck into a bowling attack. He doesn’t care for reputations, is least bothered about conditions and goes into fifth gear from the word go. This approach disturbs bowlers’ rhythm and the feisty batsman cashes in on that. You need to bowl smart against a batsman like Maxwell. You need to read his mind and outwit him and if there is one bowler in this Indian attack that can do that job it is R Ashwin.

The wily off-spinner has bowled well throughout the tournament and has been rewarded handsomely for his efforts. He has bowled with an aggressive mindset and he needs to have same approach for Maxwell and prise him out early because containing him is next to impossible.

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