England, Australia, South Africa and India – that was everybody’s answer when asked to guess the four semi-finalists for this 2017 Champions Trophy. Australia have been eliminated after losing to England on Saturday, and, on Sunday, one of either India or South Africa will be eliminated from the competition.
That is the nature of this tournament, at least of this format when the ICC envisaged it in 2002. Back then, the group stage was longer and lethargic, as Sri Lanka played host. Rain spoiled most of the games, especially the final (twice!).
More to the point, the weather has played its part in this edition too, but should be kind enough to allow India and South Africa a full shot at semi-final qualification. The format though, in its permutation zeal, as already placed one of them on the chopping block.
Of the two teams, South Africa still have some reason for grievance. Rain hampered their game against Pakistan in Birmingham, when they were squeezing the opposition with some tight bowling. They did get to bat in bright sunshine though, and in the normal scheme of things, 219/8 can never be considered a sufficient total in one-day cricket nowadays.
Is 322 a good-enough target though? Sri Lanka proved otherwise on Thursday, as they stunned India into submission. At the start of this competition, maybe England or South Africa had the firepower to overcome such a total against an Indian bowling attack boasting of quality pacers, an exuberant all-rounder and two world-class spinners.
Lanka tore that script apart, and a day before their must-win game, the Indian think-tank will be busy wondering what indeed is a good score at the Oval now.
The bigger question is how do you defend a target such as this. There wasn’t anything wrong with how India approached the Lankan chase. They bowled as per plan, but with their lone spinner (Jadeja) going for runs, Virat Kohli will be back to the drawing board on Saturday.
The India-South Africa game on Sunday will be played on the same strip as India-Sri Lanka on Thursday. Could it be a chance for R Ashwin to make his first appearance in this tournament?
Right, now to #INDvSA. Day in day out, South Africa win more ODIs but nobody is more jittery on the big day. Good match-up, India nose ahead— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) June 10, 2017
“We have definitely looked at the last game and where we can make a bit of change.There are all kind of possibilities. You can have any sort of combination possible for us starting tomorrow,” said Kohli in the pre-match press conference.
There is one combination that won’t change for India though, and it is the opening pairing of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan. It was in the 2013 Champions Trophy that the duo first came together, and set that tournament afire with some lusty hitting against South Africa and West Indies. Together they scored 382 runs in 5 matches at 76.40, inclusive of 100-plus partnerships.
The success of this new opening pairing surprised one and all, giving India a set platform for the years to come. In the 2015 ODI World Cup, the pair put on 742 runs in 8 matches at 49.96. They are back at it again, in 2017 now, belying poor form and injury in the months gone past.
They have already scored 274 runs in 2 matches against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Needless to say, India will be heavily dependent on them to provide a platform once again on Sunday.
“It’s been three-four years now,” said Dhawan, about opening with Rohit. “Once you know the person on and off the field, you get comfortable as well. We create balance for each other. We have been opening for a long time, and that stability creates consistency.”
“There is no miracle really. We keep stealing a lot of singles. Strike rotation is very important because our left-right combination causes a lot of problems for the bowlers. They have to keep changing line and length,” added Rohit, after the Lanka game.
First time India lost after a century stand from Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan in ODIs. Won all during their previous 9 100+ stands. #CT17— Sampath Bandarupalli (@SampathStats) June 8, 2017
It sits in well with how team India executes their batting plans. This is not a slam-bang outfit, and they believe in a solid base for 25-30 overs with wickets in hand, before aiming to double their score in the last 20 overs.
Of course, the vagaries of international cricket do apply herein. This plan worked against Pakistan in Birmingham as Kohli, Yuvraj Singh and Hardik Pandya teed off. It didn’t against Lanka on Thursday as India were reduced to 179/3, and Dhawan had to do the rebuilding job with MS Dhoni.
As such, from an Indian point of view, there is nothing different to be done against South Africa on Sunday atleast in terms of batting. Maybe they can accelerate a bit in the middle overs, but that is once again down to situation. The key for Kohli will be to select a bowling attack with perfect balance in pace and spin, one that covers all bases.
For, they are facing the world’s no.1 ranked ODI side, with no inherent weakness, atleast on paper.
For Shikhar Dhawan – a man whose place in the Indian team has always been under scrutiny for one reason or the other – his form in the ICC Champions Trophy so far deserves positive recognition.
The batsman, who has had to cope with the pressures of replacing Virender Sehwag for much of his career and bared heavy criticism for lean patches of form with the bat, has proven he is a key player for his country in England.
After scoring a fluent 65-ball 68 against Pakistan in India’s Group B opening win, you could tell the 31-year-old walked out to bat at the Oval on Thursday with a swagger of confidence.
Indeed, his knock of 125 in the defeat to the Sri Lankans – his 10th one-day international century, oozed class and he was the mainstay in their first innings total of 321.
Remarkably, Dhawan (968) has scored the more runs in ODI tournaments since 2013 than any other batsman. Yes, you heard right, more than the likes of Kumar Sangakkara (763) and AB de Villiers (624).
Indeed, his average in 50-over tournaments, 69.14 – is quite phenomenal but a far cry from his overall 44.36 effort.
He has a habit of coming good for the big occasion and previously helped India to Champions Trophy success in 2013 (where he averaged over 90).
Remember, when India’s squad for the Champions Trophy was named, there were some circles that wanted to see Gautam Gambhir, Robin Uthappa and others make the cut in place of the Delhi-born star.
But here he was under the skies in London, with a certain degree of tranquility infused in him, all in accordance to India’s plans of not losing wickets early on and building a big partnership at the top of the order.
He was focused, calm but hungry for runs, knowing it’s his territory, the Champions Trophy.
Slowly the bat started flowing, glorious shots through the covers followed. Watch the highlights again and again and you will find that he played with a fine grace.
Suranga Lakmal, Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Pradeep, Thisara Perera, he spared no one. Yes the pitch was good for batting, but a batsman still needs to time the ball, look for gaps, hit boundaries. Shikhar’s strokeplay enabled him to go about his business in the most attacking way possible.
But in the midst of him looking to accelerate, making the most of stray deliveries onto his pads, Dhawan added an amusing moment to his innings.
With the Indians placed at 166 for 2 and Perera steaming in, the batsman attempted to drive a good length delivery past the bowler, but it got an inside-edge nick onto his body and the ball just stayed in his crease.
With the bowler and close-in fielders running to stop the single, Shikhar started hopping in and out of the crease, almost leapfrogging, while trying to confuse the bowler. Replays made it look like a tap dance of sorts.
A few smiles were exchanged but soon he was back to focusing on getting India to the highest total possible.
Then came the moment, with Dhawan on 97*, Pradeep bowled a delivery on the off stump line, not a bad ball but perhaps Shikhar was waiting for it, he made a little room, sliced it past point and got to his 10th ODI hundred.
All of his cut shots had great conviction about them, the shots through the covers had been exquisite, the pulls and hooks were in total control; all in all a perfect recipe for a third Champions Trophy hundred.
Opened arms, helmet in one hand, bat in the other, twirling moustache, a pat on the thighs; we all knew what was coming, didn’t we? He didn’t disappoint.
His 125 off 128 was ultimately in vain as Sri Lanka chased 321 down with eight balls to go, but he put on a show for the fans and it was all delightful reminder that he is still a key man.
Dhawan almost relishes the fight against adversity and enjoys taking on the critics. With a must-win match for India coming on Sunday against South Africa, his country will be hoping he can deliver once again.
When the Indian team for the 2017 Champions Trophy was picked, there was an anomaly in the squad list. For the first time in a long while, only two front-line spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – were named in the squad, as the selectors opted for an additional middle-order batsman.
It made obvious sense. The tournament is being played in the first half of the English summer, and this has been a wet June with almost all games threatened by rain. Hardik Pandya has matured as a seam-bowling all-rounder, and India’s pace attack is perhaps their best in the past two decades.
It left a lot of possible combinations for Virat Kohli to choose from, and he went in with the one that was best considering the opposition/conditions on Sunday.
“Ashwin is a high-class bowler. Everyone knows that,” said Kohli in London on Wednesday. “And he is very professional as well. He understood the dynamic of the side that we picked in the last game, and he was absolutely fine with it. He told me, ‘I support you whatever you want to do’. That’s always been our equation.”
Let it be said here that picking only one spinner (plus three pacers and Pandya) against Pakistan was the right call, and the 124-run win proved as much. Let it also be highlighted that opting for Jadeja ahead of Ashwin too was the correct choice.
When you talk about the two spinners, in consideration for only the shorter formats, Jadeja always comes ahead of Ashwin in terms of his athleticism as well as fielding ability, never mind anything else.
Of course, this Indian squad has been picked for the Champions Trophy alone. However, India do play a lot of ODI cricket overseas in the next two years leading up to the 2019 World Cup, also to be held in England.
Does it put Ashwin’s place in doubt for the near foreseeable future, though? Could India, thinking about how they only needed two spinners this summer, look for another (read younger and fitter) option for that big tournament in two years’ time?
It is speculative at best, but at this juncture, Ashwin’s ODI record comes into focus. He is a completely different bowler in Test cricket of course, but his numbers from the 50-overs format aren’t too bad either. 145 sticks from 105 matches at an average of 32.37 and an impressive economy of 4.91 is par for course in this era of slam-bang.
Much of it is reflected from the wondrous start Ashwin experienced in his initial years. He was among the first IPL sensations to make the leap to international cricket, the ‘carrom ball’ expert, and additionally, he was never afraid to innovate in limited-overs cricket. There is a worrying trend starting to creep into his bowling though.
At home, over the years, his economy has steadily risen to 5.09. In the last two years, since the 2015 ODI World Cup, Ashwin has given away runs at 6.37 per over in home conditions. Overseas, his career economy stands at 5.05 in 37 matches, again on the higher side compared to his early years.
This is where another glaring aspect of Ashwin’s ODI bowling comes to the fore. In the last five ODIs that Ashwin has featured in, he only completed his quota of overs in three of them. It stretches back to the Australian limited-overs tour in early 2016, where he returned 2-68 from nine overs at Perth and then 0-60 in a completed spell at Brisbane.
He was rested against New Zealand in October 2016, as the Indian selectors looked to manage his workload in a long home season. Ashwin then returned against England in January earlier this year, but failed to complete his quota of overs in Pune (0-63 from eight overs) and Kolkata (0-60 from nine overs) again. In Cuttack, where Kohli did deploy him for a completed spell, Ashwin returned 3-65.
There is a school of thought that this data is not enough to form an informed opinion about Ashwin’s waning utility in the ODI arena. It could have been a bigger sample size had he played against the Blackcaps last autumn. However, it doesn’t escape attention that it was Ashwin’s poor showing in Australia (January 2016) that prompted then skipper MS Dhoni to try out a different bowling combination.
After Brisbane, India tried Gurkeerat Singh Mann and Rishi Dhawan over the next three ODIs in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. In one way, it was the start of the team management’s search for a pace-bowling all-rounder for this Champions Trophy (and possibly the 2019 World Cup), one that ended with Pandya.
In another way, that was a question mark over Ashwin’s utility in ODIs. Will India answer it against Sir Lanka at the Oval on Thursday, a side replete with left-handers?