After 45 matches without a pause in the preliminary phase of the World Cup, the 46th will be played in Mumbai on Wednesday. In theory, it’s another game in a long tournament that has entered its final week. So, it’s about following routines and processes that have served you well so far, right?
In theory, it’s also the semi-final of a World Cup. Which means all that has happened over the past five weeks could be of little significance. Semi-finals and finals, with all that’s at stake on such occasions, can make you do special and strange things at once. They can make players carve lasting legacies. They can also make players, otherwise formidable, buckle under stress. They can make teams not showing a shred of nerve in the league phase suddenly panic and head for the exit door.
India know all about the latter, having lost to New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup semi-final in Manchester due to a momentary phase of frenzy and ineptitude with the bat. They had lost just once in the preliminary stage in contrast to New Zealand’s three defeats, but a chase of 240 proved to be beyond their reach once they were reduced to 5/3 and 24/4 within the first ten overs.
That’s the inherent challenge of a knockout game. All rationale can go out of the window, the form book can be rendered irrelevant, and there can be no second chances or comebacks. It’s perhaps extremely cruel, but it’s also the enduring charm of these big occasions. If the Australian cricket team is, well, the Australian cricket team, if Real Madrid’s footballers exude an air of authority in the Champions League, if LA Lakers are among the most celebrated NBA teams, it’s because they win titles and ace knockout games.
For India’s nine-game winning streak in this World Cup to get a stamp of abiding approval, it’s this bridge they have to cross. And they are again up against New Zealand in a repeat of the 2019 semi-final.
Discernible in a clash between teams which finished first and fourth in the points table is their contrasting runs to this stage. But the difference is still stark — while India have been unstoppable, New Zealand have sneaked in despite tripping up against the other three semi-finalists.
India certainly have more to lose. By being as convincing as they have been, they have raised the bar so high that nothing less than victory will seem acceptable. If they can’t capitalise on this run of form in home conditions, it will even trigger a wave of ridicule about their record in knockout games. One that’s already under suspicion with six losses in nine knockout games since the 2013 Champions Trophy triumph.
Cliches that “this is just another game” usually abound before these occasions, but India coach Rahul Dravid was willing to admit it’s more than that.
“I think it would be inauthentic to say it’s just another game (the semi-final),” he told Star Sports after India’s 160-run win over Netherlands in Bengaluru on Sunday. “I think it’s a bit inauthentic. Yes, of course, it’s a semi-final. But I think our processes are not going to change. We do recognize that it’s an important game; it’s a knockout game. We have to accept the fact that there will be a certain amount of pressure.”
And as New Zealand left-arm pacer Trent Boult said a couple of days ago, “pressure does things to the best of players at any time”. Virat Kohli’s record in World Cup knockout games, for instance, is a glaring anomaly – 68 runs in six games at an average of 11.3. Conditions in Australia and England are perhaps primarily responsible for Kohli adding five runs in three knockout fixtures in 2015 and 2019, but it also illustrates the pressure at play.
It’s pertinent to note that New Zealand have stretched India more than any other team in this competition. In Dharamsala, the Kiwis posted 273 and reduced India to 191/5 before Kohli, at his calmest and calculative best, bailed the hosts out of a narrow corner.
If the pressure of a do-or-die game isn’t sufficient, there’s also the burden of knowing this is possibly the last chance for India’s core of senior players to win a World Cup. Kohli won the event in 2011, but Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami will want the marker of world champions to embellish their illustrious careers. None of them are likely to be around four years later.
“The way they are playing, this is probably their best chance. If they miss out this time, they will probably have to wait another three World Cups for even thinking of trying to win it,” former India head coach Ravi Shastri told the Club Prairie Fire podcast featuring Michael Vaughan and Adam Gilchrist. “The pool of players is such that 7-8 players are at their peak. This could well be their last World Cup. The way they are playing, given the conditions, they have got the team to win it.”
Only time will tell whether they do.