World Cup 2019: Kiwis stand in way of India flight

India's MS Dhoni hits one during a training session on Monday. Reuters

For a country whose population is less than half that of Bengaluru and where cricket isn’t even a close second in terms of popularity behind rugby, New Zealand have done remarkably well in the 50-over World Cup.

Known for punching above their weight in global events, New Zealand have reached the semifinals on seven occasions – joint second-best along with India whom they meet in their latest last-four clash here at the Old Trafford on Tuesday.

Only once have they managed to make it to the final, while a title has remained elusive. India, on the other hand, are two-time champions and favourites to meet either England or Australia at Lord’s in Sunday’s summit clash.

Despite a couple of injuries forcing two players out of the tournament, including key opener Shikhar Dhawan, India’s batting has worked well. While there are some concerns over the iffy middle-order, the form of the top three has helped them paper over this weakness. Rohit Sharma, with five centuries, has been in imperious touch while K L Rahul has added stability as an opener – his two century stands (180 vs England & 189 vs Sri Lanka) with Rohit has provided them the confidence. Virat Kohli has crossed 50 runs without a three-figure score, a rare “blip”, but he is still the second highest run-getter for India behind Rohit.

Rishabh Pant has brought vigour to the middle-order with his cavalier approach and variety with his left-hand batting, but the youngster needs to make his starts count. Hardik Pandya, too, is in the same mold when it comes to batting. And that brings us to the question of M S Dhoni, who has had a mixed tournament. He has had some good outings with the bat and behind the wicket while he has struggled equally in both departments. Coming as he does at No 5 or later with few overs left and fewer batsmen for company, he has been put in a dilemma – whether risk his wicket by batting aggressively that may expose the long tail or hold one end up before cutting loose in the final few overs. His problem, though, has been his inability to rotate strike. He will have to find a way out of this quagmire.

Kohli hinted at having the right balance between batting and bowling units in order to not compromise on either. In the last two matches they have played without the option of a sixth bowler keeping in mind the difficulty while chasing in this tournament. However, India may revisit their strategy – they may either retain left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja and add a third seamer to the attack in place of a batsman or get back Kedar Jadhav, instead of Dinesh Karthik, in the mix as he brings both skills to the table.

Barring this minor selection confusion, India have been in high spirits coming into the first semifinal. They have had two good wins over Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, confirming their top position following Australia’s loss to South Africa. This helped them not only avoid England, who they would have faced had they finished second, but also cut down their long journey – instead of the three-hour bus travel to Birmingham, they had to ride just over an hour to reach Manchester.

The Kiwis, after enjoying a good run in the first part of their league campaign, have suffered three debilitating defeats on the trot, only a superior net run-rate enabling them to finish ahead of Pakistan, who too finished on 11 points. Since their win over South Africa by six wickets, New Zealand have struggled to match their early standards.

The absence of big scores from Williamson and Ross Taylor has had an obvious say in the last three results while reflecting the Kiwis’ dependence on the duo. Paceman Lockie Ferguson’s return should add some bite to their attack along with Trent Boult and Tim Southee. With pace-bowling all-rounders Jimmy Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme in their ranks, Kiwis have a nice blend.

This is first time both teams are playing in a knockout game, and with a place in the final on the line, it will all boil down to nerves.

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