Defeated but not disgraced

Despite exiting in semis, India have reasons to be pleased about their World Cup show

Defeated but not disgraced

 While there may have been mixed feelings back home about India’s World Cup campaign that came to an end with their semifinal defeat to Australia on Thursday, perhaps the biggest compliment recognising their performance came through the words of a Pakistani cab driver.

“I have driven many Australians today and they were all really scared of India’s batting,” he said as he drove us to our apartment from the Sydney Cricket Ground.

That’s the kind of aura India had enveloped themselves in after stringing together seven wins in a row.

You would have been laughed at if you had suggested that India can win the World Cup after what they had gone through during the Australian summer. They had lost the Test series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2-0 and had failed to register a single win in the three completed tri-series matches.

They were facing several injury concerns, some of their top-batsmen had increasingly appeared disinterested and the fast bowlers inspired little confidence. The World Cup warm-up match against Australia was little encouraging and before India faced Pakistan in their opening tie on February 15, the only win they had during their three months of cricket in the Antipodeans was against minnows Afghanistan.

How they turned around their fortunes in the space of 10 days between the tri-series and the World Cup is magical if not a miracle in itself. Pakistan were taken in their stride, South Africa were stunned into submission, UAE and Ireland were swept aside, while only the West Indies and to some extent Zimbabwe gave some fight. Bangladesh were never going to offer any serious challenge. Seven matches and seven wins. Too good to be true? That’s how it felt like after they caved in against a professional Australia.   
Try hard as they did, India weren’t able to crack the Australian code through the summer. They had fleeting moments of control, like Virat Kohli’s batting through the Test series and some quality fast bowling in the Brisbane Test, but never quite dominant enough to tame the hosts. Going into Thursday’s semifinal, the history too was against India.

While they had only one win in 13 completed matches against the hosts at the SCG, Australia had lost just four of the 28 completed matches in the last 27 months on home soil. More impressively, Australia had not lost a single of their last six World Cup semifinals. India had to buck many trends to set up a final date with New Zealand and they didn’t even come to close to doing that.

Australia, especially at home, are an irresistible force. Their depth in batting is unrivalled and their pace bowling has more variety and fielding, arguably, the best at the moment. No one covers the big grounds like the Australian fielders and with only four-fielders-outside-the-circle rule, it makes a lot of difference.

If any team had lost four wickets like the Australians did when Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell, Aaron Finch and Michael Clarke got out in quick succession, it would have been difficult for them to salvage the innings from there but this Australian side has a very short tale. Between them, James Faulkner and Mitchell Johnson, who batted at number seven and eight respectively, plundered 48 off just 21 balls as Australia looted 78 off the last seven overs.

Till the semifinal, the Indian pacers had bowled 212 bouncers, given away 154 runs and taken 17 wickets. Against Australia they lacked the same bite. They did get three wickets to short-pitched balls, as Dhoni pointed out later, but not before the damage had been done. India also had no answer to their tormentor Steven Smith who subdued the Indian pacers before they could singe him.

A target of 329 in these days of bigger bats, flatter wickets, two new balls per innings and field restrictions is eminently achievable and India have a better credentials of chasing 300-plus totals.

They have done it on 15 occasions, seven times more than the second best team. But this was no bilateral series, this was a World Cup semifinal and the attendant pressures can only be experienced and not imagined. Yet, if there was one team that Australia feared would achieve this target then it had to be India. Such relentless is the Australian bowling, however, you can never feel in.

If you plan to play Mitchell Starc and Josh Hozlewood without any risk, how will you deal with Mitchell Johnson? James Faulkner, the slowest of the four pacers, was targeted but you need to score off more than one bowler to chase such a big target.

“Once we were down three, it became difficult,” said Dhoni on asking when did he think the chase was out of their reach. “If you see the kind of cricket we play, we depend a lot on partnerships even though we compromise a bit on strike rate. Here in this match, the required rate was over six an over already and it was bound to go up if we had to build partnerships.

One of our plans was that if we keep wickets in hand till about 30th over, then we can accelerate because we have got big hitters. To expect our No 8, 9 and 10 batsmen to bat like some of the players from other teams do then it’s a bit unrealistic. I felt we had a good start and we should have continued with that partnership. If you see Australia, that’s how they batted. If you have wickets in hand after 25 overs, you can take some risk and everything falls into place but after the 12th over our plans went out of the window,” he explained.

India, though, can look back at their campaign with great pride and satisfaction. They were defeated but hardly disgraced. Of course, the players will be disappointed with the result but they don’t have to make a public spectacle of it.

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