View from Champions Trophy: Virat Kohli's potentially great Indian team needs work after Pakistan defeat

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India captain Virat Kohli (R) talks to his players ahead of a Champions Trophy match [Getty Images]

At the prize distribution ceremony, the Oval cut a sorry figure on Sunday evening. It had been abuzz with colour and noise all through the day. But right about the time when Pakistan players were being adorned in sparkling white jackets, only a wave of green was to be seen at the venue of this 2017 Champions Trophy final.

And why not, for the Indian fans scrambled for the exit as soon as MS Dhoni fell, with the scorecard reading 54-5. The Men in Blue cut a forlorn figure at the end, with their supporters all but vanishing from sight. So much so, Pakistan’s fans inexplicably booed Virat Kohli when he went up to collect his runners-up medal. The game was over, and the hostilities should have ended.

This isn’t about morality or ‘spirit of cricket’ though. Instead, it is about that ‘runners-up’ tag that now adorns this Indian team as regards to the Champions Trophy. They are no longer title-holders of any major tournament in world cricket. Yet, it cannot be denied that this has been an impressive journey from 2013 to 2017, from victory against England in a rain-curtailed game four years ago to defeat against Pakistan now.

In between, this team has undergone many changes, facelifts if you will, as the Men in Blue finished runners-up in the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh, and semi-finalists in both the 2015 ODI World Cup in Australia-New Zealand as well as the 2016 World T20 at home. In finishing runners-up here in England, India have shown a streak of consistency despite the obvious change in leadership.

You can look at this in two ways.

First – immense potential, wherein this Indian team is on the cusp of winning a major trophy soon enough. They have all major pieces in place, whether it comes to a world-class top-order, a passionate captain, an upcoming seam-bowling big-hitting all-rounder, two well-known spinners and four high-quality fast bowlers. They also have an ageing, clever keeper-batsman who is also a former skipper, and a bench strength that is the toast of world cricket.

The problem is that these pieces haven’t quite fit together in the jigsaw puzzle since that victory in 2013. Four ICC tournaments have come and gone, and this fearsome combination is yet to win a single one of them. Despite all talent and confidence available to them, this Indian team – replete with almost superhuman ability – has been unable to take that last step up to the winning podium. This is where the second point gets highlighted.

A lot of work needs to be put in to give this squad of players that complete look of a championship winning team. Two losses in five matches, in addition to making the final, don’t add up to a poor tournament. But when you look at those two losses – by seven wickets against Sri Lanka, who chased down 322 with eight balls to spare, and an embarrassing 180-run loss against Pakistan – gaping holes in this Indian line-up stare back at you.

“We have identified areas, even in victories, that we can improve at, and this was a loss. It’s the final, so it looks magnified to everyone, but we have won before, we have lost before, and we have always learned things from all those games,” said Kohli in the post-match conference on Sunday.

At first glance, the first frailty is quite obvious. This Indian team lacks a proper balance in its bowling attack, which is partly fault on Hardik Pandya’s part, never mind his explosive knock in the final. He is in the eleven as an all-rounder, and he managed to complete his quota of overs in only two out of five matches. It meant that Kohli had to rely on part-timers (Kedar Jadhav and himself), which is currently not a strong suite of this team.

Kedar Jadhav picked up three wickets at the tournament [Getty Images]

Kedar Jadhav picked up three wickets at the tournament [Getty Images]

Of course, the other big worry is regarding the spin combination. Both Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja bowled quite defensively throughout the tournament. It has been a standing brief for Indian spinners to try and contain scoring whenever playing overseas, certainly on such flat tracks, and they failed twice on this count. The Indian team management perhaps needs to start looking at an aggressive spin option, perhaps a wrist spinner going ahead.

All of it, though, depends on a desire for change. Indian cricket is too steeped in powerhouse names, and Ashwin-Jadeja certainly enjoy this status, given their individual and collective exploits in the season gone past. This holds truer in the case of Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh perhaps. Can anyone honestly see them together in a 2019 World Cup playing eleven?

Maybe there is vacancy for one of them, given their experience, but the need for change has to start at this juncture. If the answer to that aforementioned question is yes, then India will not win two years hence either. In case that answer is no, and there is an appetite for change, then maybe Kohli will help his side to the victory step in 2019.

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Champions Trophy: Hardik Pandya can take over finishing role from Dhoni - Four lessons learnt from India's campiagn

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Hardik Pandya hit the most sixes at the Champions Trophy [Getty Images]

Pakistan barely managed to sneak into the ICC Champions Trophy as the eighth-ranked team. The way they were outplayed in the group stage game against India justified their ranking and almost gave us a glimpse into their future in the tournament. Most, including their own, had written them off.

Their cricket board had constituted a three-man enquiry committee to probe into the loss against India. And then something changed.

They dropped Ahmed Shehzad for ODI debutant Fakhar Zaman, started the bowling attack with two seam bowlers, Mohammad Hafeez was given a ball and the team transformed.

Pakistan choked South Africa, got a little lucky against Sri Lanka, downed England in style and then brought their A game in the final and returned the favour to India.

Pakistan’s rise will always be scripted by their bowlers and in Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan, Hasan Ali, Shadab Khan – they seemed to have found the match-winning combination. If they could somehow unearth one more Fakhar Zaman, their rise will not be limited to one Champions Trophy title.

On the other hand, India found out that while winning the trophy is tough, retaining the crown is a lot tougher. Even though India got lucky with the draw (they didn’t play Australia, New Zealand and England), they did fall short in the final frontier.

Before we discuss the lessons learnt from the campaign, it’s important to acknowledge the way the Indian team played in crunch situations. The way they annihilated South Africa and Bangladesh after the loss to Sri Lanka was a good indicator of how good this team can be.

HARDIK PANDYA’S BATTING

India captain Virat Kohli has invested a lot of faith in Hardik Pandya and the Baroda all-rounder justified that faith in the final. It was only the third time that Hardik finished his quota of 10 overs in his young ODI career and the way he batted showed that he’s arguably the cleanest hitter in this team.

He hit more sixes (10) than any other batsman in the tournament despite playing only a handful of deliveries. While his bowling still needs work (must start bowling a lot fuller), his batting looks ready to take over the mantle of finishing from Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni.

SWING IS KING

Flat batting surfaces have made speed an overrated asset and the only way to thrive with the white ball is to make it swing in the air. Even when most Indian bowlers were taken for runs, Bhuvneshwar Kumar was exceptional both with the new and old ball.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar impressed at the tournament [Getty Images]

Bhuvneshwar Kumar impressed at the tournament [Getty Images]

Barring the final against Pakistan, his partner Jasprit Bumrah also showcased why he’s been rated highly by one and sundry. It’s time we thank the Indian Premier League [IPL] for giving us two bowlers who can be trusted to be as effective as some of the best death-over bowlers.

Looking at Pakistan’s rise to the top, it was, perhaps, prudent to play either Mohammed Shami or Umesh Yadav throughout. As they say, batsmen win you matches, bowlers win you tournaments. India were always a bowler light.

OPENING DEBATE

The way both Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma combined to provide a solid and stable start almost every single time, it’s wise to put the opening combination debate to bed in the 50-over format.

While there were no doubts about Rohit’s place, there were enough sceptics about persisting with Dhawan at the top. The southpaw has shown that he’s not just cracked the ODI code but has almost mastered it. He’s a creature of confidence and Kohli’s faith in his abilities has paid rich dividends.

MIDDLE OVER CONUNDRUM

If there’s one area that India need to address in 50-over cricket, it is their ability to pick wickets and score briskly in the middle overs. If it wasn’t for Kedar Jadhav’s golden arm, Bangladesh would’ve scored in excess of 320. Out of the four wickets that India took against Pakistan, one came courtesy a run-out and Jadhav took one.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja haven’t been as effective as the team would’ve liked, and it allowed the opposition to pile on the pressure. Since most teams go slow in the first ten overs, it’s crucial to look for wickets in the middle overs and, unfortunately, it didn’t happen for India.

Similarly, while batting, Indian progress got somewhat halted during 31-40th over. Most teams look to accelerate post the 30th over and prepare for the final push, India could only do it if two of the top three were around and seldom after being three-down at the 30-over mark.

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Champions Trophy: Unpredictable Pakistan find consistency to upstage and outplay rivals India at the Oval

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Downbeat: Skipper Virat Kohli at the Oval.

The unpredictability of Pakistan upstages India!

Batting, bowling, fielding – after the defeat against India in Birmingham on June 4, faults could be found in each aspect of Pakistan’s game. This is their weakest team ever to participate in an ICC tournament, they said. They cannot beat any other stronger opponents, they added.

And here you are, when the golden dust settled after the white jackets were presented, Pakistan left as the 2017 Champions Trophy winners. They beat South Africa, Sri Lanka, England and India to lift the second biggest prize in ODI cricket. None of the naysayers can argue that they didn’t deserve it. They can wonder though, aloud even, just how did this happen?

Part of the credit goes to Mickey Arthur, alone. The coach’s brief is to make sure his team believes in their ability, first and foremost, and if they budge from that line of thinking, he has to pull them back. Despite the loss against India, Arthur was defiant in his belief that this Pakistan team could do something special. It was just a matter of the sum of different parts coming together, clicking at one point in time even.

Is it easy though, when the team you are coaching is as unpredictable as this one? That word is so clichéd now, but never more has it held true for any Pakistan side. There is reasoning behind it of course, for this is a new bunch of players coming together for them at a vital time. Sample this – in an ICC competition, wherein most teams baulk at blooding youngsters, Pakistan played three debutants in this tournament. There is so much inexperience among them that it can ruin best laid plans.

The other way to look at it is that the same inexperience cannot dent their confidence. The loss against India comes to the fore here again, in particular one moment. It was when Hasan Ali dropped Yuvraj Singh, and the left-hander cut loose. It hurt Ali to miss a sitter like that one, but was he mentally scarred by it? No, he wasn’t, because a couple days later, in the game against South Africa, he took a similar catch, completing it this time and pumped up the crowd to chant his name.

Ali finished as the top wicket-taker in the tournament, and there can be no doubt he has a long future ahead of him, if selection politics do not come in his way. The bottom line though is about mental ability to bounce back, something that so many Pakistan cricketers suffer from. None among Fakhar Zaman, Faheem Ashraf or Rumman Raees had played international cricket until the game against India. Coming into the tournament, both Ashraf and Raees did stellar jobs against Sri Lanka and England respectively.

Meanwhile, Zaman changed their fortunes with the bat from the moment he was included in their playing eleven. He finished with 252 runs from four matches, inclusive of two half-centuries and that scintillating hundred in the final. It can only be imagined how his integration in the side might have possibly worked. After the defeat to India, Pakistan were looking for more attacking options at the top, and Zaman provided quick starts in the other matches. And, in the final on Sunday, he played against his natural game, stunning the Men in Blue who really who had no answer to his patient knock.

The other part of this meritorious credit goes to skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed, of course. The coach might be employed to improve the team. And he will always have eyes on the past as well as the future, for they are his reference points at all times. The captain though must think about where his team is valued in the current scheme of things, and act accordingly, whether on or off the field. In this aspect, Ahmed has been faultless.

While the coach was busy keeping his team aligned in one direction, the captain put in effort to allow liberty to Pakistan players to express themselves. Play like an underdog, and you can win, perhaps was the mantra from Ahmed. It was a known mental space for him, for he has been an underdog throughout his international career – fighting for his spot, his chance at the big stage, trying to prove his detractors wrong.

And there is nothing more dangerous than an unappreciated but dogged Pakistan side. It gives wings to their unpredictability as South Africa and England found out, and India on Sunday. Against the defending champions, none could have estimated anything else but a successful title defence. Maybe a close fight, but again with Virat Kohli’s men prevailing in the end, to retain their 2013 crown. Let it be said here that they were outplayed.

Was it plausible that Pakistan’s openers would bat with concentration and protect their wickets (that Jasprit Bumrah no-ball helped of course!)? Was it foreseeable that their batting line-up, with a highest score of 237/7 previously in this tournament, would not only cross 300 comfortably, instead put on an imposing 339-run target on the board?

Was it remotely conceivable that India’s in-form batting line-up would crumble to 158 all out? Did anyone – even their staunchest fans – think Pakistan would beat their arch rivals in this wholesome, dominant manner, upstaging India with bat, ball and in the field even?

Arthur set his wards a target of reaching London, and when they got here, he urged them to go one step further. Ahmed broke his young team’s shackles and told them to go enjoy their moment in the sun. Pakistan rode 270 miles from Birmingham to Cardiff, and then to this final at the Oval, on their way to lifting the trophy. It was a stellar journey where they found consistency in their unique unpredictability.

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