The law of averages was bound to catch up with India some time or other. It was the good fortune of national side that this happened after it had gained a foothold in the last-four stage. England needed to win the match to stay in contention for a berth in the semifinals and the side demonstrated the will to win that was hard to beat. In the end it was England’s determination to win the match that triumphed over India, whose spin bowlers had an off day on the field.
On Thursday India had defeated West Indies by a comfortable margin of 125 runs five days after their close call in the game against Afghanistan. The match against West Indies had again exposed the brittle nature of Indian middle order and it took a determined innings by Mahendra Singh Dhoni to propel the side to a respectable total of 268 runs in the allotted overs. However, a splendid performance by the Indian bowlers ensured that West Indies were never really in the contest and they folded up for a mere 143 runs, with Mohammed Shami again picking up four wickets. Thus, Indian side reached Edgbaston with their unbeaten record still intact, while England, with losses against Pakistan, Australia and Sri Lanka, were struggling to remain in contention for a place in the knockout stage.
England’s lacklustre performance had drawn criticism from all quarters, especially from the former players who made the transition to commentary box. Present-day cricketers are adept at taking flak for failures but it riles them a lot when they hear their former colleagues lambasting them in public. These were persons with whom they had shared the dressing room till not too long ago and knew first hand the challenges and pressures that confront players. Hence, they feel offended when they hear their former mates poking fun at them and passing disparaging comments. This was what happened to batsman Jonny Bairstow when he reacted to the observations of former players Kevin Pietersen and Michael Vaughan, saying that these persons wanted England to fail. This was certainly hard stuff and showed the amount of stress that English players were under.
Bairstow's century (111 runs off 109 balls with six sixes and 10 fours) was the highlight of England’s innings on Sunday. He and Jason Roy laid the foundation for a big total for his side with a 160-run stand for the first wicket, that came off a mere 22 overs. From the very beginning it was obvious that England had done their home work as the batsmen patiently played out the openings spells of Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, before opening out against the spin bowlers. Neither Kuldeep Yadav nor Yuzvendra Chahal was allowed to settle down as the batsmen launched themselves into a brutal assault, picking boundaries and hitting sixes at will. Though Roy had not recovered fully from a torn hamstring, he decided to play, given the importance of the match, and showed his class with a polished innings of 66, which ended when substitute Ravindra Jadeja took a terrific catch at long on, running in and diving forward to pluck the ball when it was few inches away from the ground.
Ben Stokes built on the groundwork done by Bairstow and guided England away from a possible middle-innings slump to a winning total of 337 runs. He scored 79 off a mere 54 balls, but more importantly, stayed till the end of the innings to ensure that momentum generated was not lost. He wisely took a supporting role when Jos Buttler played a brief cameo but reverted to the attacking mode once the latter was dismissed. Stokes has been in brilliant form during this tournament and on Sunday he showed what an asset he is to the England side. He is, without doubt, the leading all-rounder of the championship and his form will be critical for England in the matches ahead.
Chasing a target in excess of 300 runs is never an easy task and teams who have attained this goal have always had the benefit of a flying start to their innings. India lost Rahul in the third over and though Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli repaired the damage through a 138-run stand for the second wicket, they consumed too many overs in the process. Only 28 runs were scored during the first 10 overs, when only two fielders are allowed outside the circle during the first power play, while at the half-way mark, Indian score had not reached even within 200 runs of the target. The batsmen might have been more circumspect than warranted as loss of another wicket would have put the bowlers of top, besides exposing the middle order. This slow pace of run gathering during the initial overs took the asking rate to eight-runs plus per over, which proved to be beyond the capacity of the side. The only periods during which India appeared to putting up a fight were when Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya were at the wicket. Pant was going great guns when a stupendous catch by Chris Woakes brought a full stop to his innings while Pandya perished attempting to push up the scoring rate.
It is true that Indian efforts had a jaded appearance by the time the end overs’ commenced. Neither Dhoni nor Kedar Jadhav was able to launch the big hits that seemed to come so easily to Stokes and Buttler. England bowlers stuck to the basics and did not allow any room for stroke play but one expected a battle- scarred veteran like Dhoni to at least try some innovations. The dot balls and singles during the last five overs angered the crowd, who showed their disenchantment by resorting to boos, which was most unfortunate. It is sad to note that Dhoni increasingly resembles a lion in winter, especially while batting during the end overs.
In the final analysis, India lost the match because the two spin bowlers ran out of ideas when batsmen started attacking them and ended up conceding too many runs. The short side boundaries at Birmingham, which are a mere 59 yards from the pitch on one side, increased the discomfiture of the spinners. Skipper Kohli was reluctant to try out any of the irregular bowlers, possibly due to fear that they may leak more runs. He must have missed the absence of an extra pace-bowling all-rounder who could have provided more options, when the spin bowlers were getting the stick.
This brings one to the issue of composition of the playing eleven. Though captain had come out openly in support of Vijay Shankar, he did not figure in the playing eleven on Sunday, ostensibly on account of a “toe niggle”. Pant, who came in his place, equipped himself creditably with the bat. However, that left the side short of a pace-bowling option, which could have been handy and kept the run rate down. This also questions the wisdom of playing two spin bowlers in all matches, irrespective of the nature of the pitch and other conditions governing the game. Team management would be examining the possibility of playing all three fast bowlers, once Bhuvneshwar Kumar regains match fitness, as also the likelihood of playing Jadeja, who can add value with his left-arm spin bowling and brisk scoring, in the lower order.
India started the campaign for the championship in style winning the first three matches with ease and kept up the winning stride till the sixth match. The loss against England should not bother the side as such occasional reverses are part of the game. In 2011, India had lost to South Africa during the league phase but came back strongly to lift the Cup. This time around, the national side is more equipped and better poised than on any occasion in the past to win the championship. Hence, rather than mulling over and trying to play the blame game over a match that has gone by, it is more important to focus on the future and learn from such setbacks so that the side emerges stronger for the sterner tests that await them when the semifinals commence.