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Fear flashbacks no more, India fans

Fear flashbacks no more, India fans


2 for 3. If you’re an India fan, you probably saw flashbacks of 6 for 2 and 5 for 3 when you watched Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood cut through your top order on Sunday.

Not again, you may have pleaded, beseeching whichever force you believe shapes the day-to-day destiny of the universe. Please, not again.

This wasn’t a Champions Trophy final or a World Cup semi-final. This was India’s opening match in a World Cup whose format allows teams to bounce back from early setbacks. But you had no desire to witness this, no desire to revisit the trauma of the not particularly distant past.

This match, though, was not like those other matches in significant ways, and this became increasingly apparent as Virat Kohli – who survived a nervy early period that included a loose drive at a 13th-stump delivery and a dropped chance from a top-edged hook – and KL Rahul steered India out of trouble with a fourth-wicket stand of 165.

At a fundamental level, two things about this India side are different to those of 2017 and 2019.

One, India had the perfect attack for the conditions. This certainly wasn’t the case during the 2017 Champions Trophy, where they lacked outright wicket-taking ability in the middle overs. It cost them when they played on flatter pitches: Sri Lanka chased down 322 against them in the group stage, and Pakistan, sent in to bat in the final, cruised to 338 for 4.

The bowling was less of an issue in 2019, but in that semi-final at Old Trafford, their pace attack perhaps suffered in comparison to New Zealand’s since they lacked a fourth fast bowler in overcast, seaming conditions.

Now, on a sharp turner in Chennai, India had three seamers – with Hardik Pandya a significantly better bowler than he was four years ago – and three spinners of entirely different styles who combine stifling accuracy with the ability to give the ball a rip. This was a turning pitch that rewarded Test-match virtues, and R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav are all accomplished Test spinners; most other spin attacks at this World Cup are made up of white-ball specialists. Australia have a major headache given they only have two frontline spinners in their squad, and that’s if you consider Glenn Maxwell to be one; Adam Zampa‘s lack of control in this match was a key reason why India won so comfortably in the end.

The control Ashwin, Jadeja and Kuldeep exerted on Australia stifled their scoring long before they collapsed from 110 for 2 to 119 for 5. David Warner, Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne added a combined 105 for the second and third wickets, but took 24.5 overs to do so. This was the kind of pitch where it was fraught with risk to hit good-length balls against the turn, and India’s spinners hardly ever veered from a good length while constantly keeping the stumps in play.

The quality and experience of this attack ensured that India kept Australia down to well below what might have been a testing total. Even at 2 for 3, India knew two good partnerships would put them back on track.

Which brings us to the second major difference between this India and the India of 2017 and 2019. In 2017, the early loss off Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli brought an ageing and well-past-his-best Yuvraj Singh to the crease. The batters to follow were MS Dhoni – who was beginning to show signs of slowing down – Kedar Jadhav – who had only batted 12 previous times in ODIs – and Hardik Pandya – who had only batted seven times.

By 2019, Dhoni was two years older and playing what turned out to be his final ODI. Their middle order also included Rishabh Pant – who hadn’t been part of their original squad and was their fourth No. 4 of the tournament – and Dinesh Karthik – a reserve keeper who came into the side as a specialist batter after sitting out the bulk of the league phase. Their line-up in the semi-final looked nothing like the line-up they began the tournament with.

On Sunday at Chepauk, India had Rahul at No. 5 – a position he’s occupied consistently in the build-up to the tournament, and where he averaged 50.43 coming into this World Cup – a Hardik who has vastly improved his innings-building skills over the last few years at No. 6, and Jadeja and Ashwin at Nos. 7 and 8. This may not be the most power-packed middle and lower-middle order at this World Cup, but it’s certainly one with quality and experience and batters playing roles they’re comfortable in.

India could still have lost Sunday’s game, of course. Any team can lose from 2 for 3. But the India of 2023 are better set up to recover from that sort of situation. Their bowling, particularly on turning pitches, probably won’t concede too much more than par; and their batting has far fewer holes. This is why they’re favourites to win this World Cup.

That, of course, is no guarantee of actually doing it. India could still get to the semi-finals or final and lose to a quality opponent. But that opponent might need to play at the very limits of their ability to make that happen, because there’s an in-built resilience to this India side, born of the quality and experience running through it, that separates it from their recent global-tournament predecessors.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo


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