Once again it took India to stop the Aussie juggernaut. Like they had done in the past at Kolkata in 2001 and at Perth in 2008 in the longer duration version of the game, Indians stopped the winning streak of Aussies in the 50-over format, just when it was threatening to give that side an aura of invincibility. The long-awaited clash between the two top teams in limited-overs’ cricket produced excellent cricket, but it was India’s day all along and Australia was forced to go down by a margin of 36 runs.
Kennington Oval wore a festive look on Sunday morning with a full house under a bright blue sky. One would have been forgiven for thinking that the venue was located somewhere in India as the crowd was composed almost entirely of people from the Indian subcontinent. Most were dressed in the official blue t-shirt of the national side while some carried the tricolour and a few had colourful turbans. The buzz around the ground was palpable and the noise levels deafening with drums, saxophones and whistles. It appeared that the entire Indian community in England had turned out in full force to cheer the national side. Virat Kohli and his boys gave them plenty to cheer for by their outstanding performance, which resulted in a decisive victory.
India’s win was fashioned by their batsmen. Though experts had suggested that chasing a target was the better option on this ground, Kohli had no hesitation in opting to bat after winning the toss. For once, the top three of Indian batting order came good in the same game. The star performer was Shikhar Dhawan, who had not been amongst the runs of late. It was evident from the very first ball he faced that Dhawan was in excellent nick and he kept the scoreboard moving with regular hits to the fence. His 117 won him the Man of the Match award but even more importantly helped to quieten critics who had started saying that his weakness against left-arm seam bowlers made him a liability in the side. Rohit Sharma continued from where he had left off against South Africa and his half century had the look of a regular day in office. Skipper Kohli took his time to settle down and opened out towards the end, before being dismissed in the last over for a well-made 82. The highlight of end overs of Indian batting were the cameos by Hardik Pandya, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and KL Rahul, who threw their bat around with gay abandon and helped to take Indian total score past 350 runs.
India was aided by some sloppy catching by the Australians. Rohit was dropped in the very second over of the match when he flicked Mitchell Starc uppishly, while both Pandya and Dhoni were dropped by wicket-keeper Alex Carey before they had scored. Pandya edged the very first ball that he received but Carey floored a straightforward regulation catch. Dhoni attempted a hook shot, but he edged and though Carey managed to get his gloves to it, he could not hang on to the ball. Australia paid a heavy price for these mistakes as Pandya and Dhoni made merry during the last ten overs and contributed handsomely to their side crossing the 350-run mark.
Indian bowlers did well to bowl within themselves, which is the most important aspect while bowling on a slow wicket loaded with runs. They were backed up by excellent fielding and this combination pushed Aussies on to the ropes. Captain Aaron Finch tried to test the prowess of Indian fielders in the deep and went for a tight second run, only to find himself stranded when a flat throw from the midwicket fence, by Kedar Jadhav, found its mark. The mounting asking rate pushed David Warner to attempt to clear the fence but he only succeeded in holing out to the fielder posted on the midwicket fence. Usman Khawaja tried to push the score along but was clean bowled while attempting a scoop shot. Glenn Maxwell showed that he possessed the ability to push the score along rapidly. In fact it was only during the period when Maxwell and Steve Smith were at the crease, when they added 36 runs off a mere 18 balls, that Aussies appeared to be capable of mounting a serious challenge to the Indians.
However, Indian bowlers were unwilling to allow Aussies to spoil their party and Bhuvneshwar Kumar dealt a double blow by dismissing Smith and Marcus Stoinis in the 40th over. Maxwell followed in the next over, holing out to substitute Jadeja, off the bowling of Yuzvendra Chahal, bringing forth huge celebrations in the Indian camp. Carey stuck around stubbornly, scoring a quick unbeaten half century but he could only delay the inevitable as, by then, the target had grown to unachievable levels.
It should be mentioned that, unlike the Aussies, Indian fielders gobbled up all the chances that came their way. This, along with some splendid work in the outfield, where players chose to throw themselves at the ball and assisted each other in saving valuable runs, contributed significantly to the final result. On June 9, 2019 Kohli and his boys could do no wrong and showed the full potential of the side.
This victory, coming on the back of a emphatic win over South Africa places India in the reckoning for grabbing the top spots in the league phase of the championship. The rush of victory should not blind the players to the reality that things can go topsy-turvy in a short span of time. The next two matches - against New Zealand and Pakistan - are crucial ones too as these sides have demonstrated repeatedly that they are capable of springing upsets.
Australia would learn their lessons from this defeat. Their bowling looks slightly suspect as neither Adam Zampa nor Glenn Maxwell are in the same league as frontline spin bowlers of other sides. This places more pressure on the trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Nathan Coulter-Nile to deliver early wickets, if the side is to seize the initiative. This strategy can come unstuck on placid wickets against teams with strong batting line up, as happened at the Oval. The plus point is that the side has shown that they possess adequate depth on the batting front, with all the frontline batsmen in excellent form.
Finally, as a spectator, I could feel for myself the excitement that surges through the expatriates whenever they see Team India in action on the cricket field. The sense of joy and pride that suffuses through them when the national side does well was in full demonstration at the Oval on Sunday. Let us hope that this Virat Kohli-led side gives them many more such memorable days during this championship and fulfills the hope of every Indian cricket fan by returning with the Cup.