Why the best team is not in the World Cup final?

A couple of days before league table-toppers India took on New Zealand in the first semifinal of the World Cup on Wednesday, Sachin Tendulkar, a legend of the game, wished the country ‘s most successful captain and wicketkeeper M.S. Dhoni on his 38th birthday. But it was more than a simple birthday greeting.

Sachin tweeted: “Wish you a happy birthday @msdhoni! Have a great year. All the very best for the next two games.”

For Sachin, as diplomatic as they come and one who is extremely cautious and measured with his words in the public domain, it was the supreme belief in the calibre of the Indian team, coupled with the fact that they would be taking on the weakest team that made it to the semis of cricket’s biggest spectacle, which got him to emphatically presume that India and Dhoni would win the semis and definitely play the final.

Sachin was not wrong in his assumptions, and as the match showed, despite being in a huge spot of bother while chasing New Zealand’s moderate total, the strong Indian team nearly pulled off a win.

But, various factors contributed to the loss. These factors were visible to all, but got glossed over due to the overwhelming positives that were perceived as making the Indian team invincible.

New Zealand in semis
While the team-related weaknesses were exposed during the league stage, the unexpected emergence of this small country as the opponent only aided in not addressing these weaknesses. For the No.1 team in the world, it would have been euphoria as they avoided the favourite team to win the cup, hosts England, the only team to whom they lost during the group stage.

There would have been the mandatory strategy meetings and analysis of the opposition, but no member of the contingent would have attached the kind of seriousness needed for a semifinal match if it was against England, or defending champions Australia.

Strategy paralysis
While many scenarios would have been mapped, one where the top three batsmen scored just one run each, putting the team in a precarious situation, could not have been imagined by anyone. And that these would include Rohit Sharma, with a record-breaking five centuries in CWC19, and Virat Kohli, captain and probably the best batsman in the world now. Here is where it was required for the team management to quickly rework all the strategies and put forward a clear path towards achieving the target.

Kohli was back in the dressing room with the coach, Ravi Shastri, and they had the brains of Dhoni for assistance. It would be another seven overs before the fourth wicket fell. A strategy was put in place, but that there was a collective vacuum when a crisis came to the fore.

Pant & Pandya
Once Dinesh Karthik returned to the pavilion and the score read 24/4 with 40 more overs to go and an inexperienced Rishabh Pant at one end, there would not be any cricketer or analyst worth his salt who would have not pointed out that Dhoni had to go in to hold up one end and also guide the non-strikers through to victory.

Instead, in came Hardik Pandya, a very talented player, but someone who didn’t have the experience for the situation at hand. Was it the strategy to take the aggressive route where one of them took the battle to the opposition by scoring some quick runs?

A good strategy if it could be implemented well. It would have upset the rhythm of the bowling attack, and simultaneously reduced the runs required for victory. But it was an ill-thought one fraught with problems.

In fact, the team think-tank had just to emulate how the Kiwi captain, Kane Williamson, and their No.4 batsman, Ross Taylor, stitched together a 65-run partnership eating up 17 overs for it with a run-rate of under 4.

Though they were batting first and setting a total, never did they opt for any risky stroke. They would have liked a better run-rate, but the veterans that they are, they did not allow their urge to take control of their better senses. When both Pant and Pandya got out to unnecessary slog shots, the asking rate was just 6 and 7, respectively, which with Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja to follow could have got with some patience and smart batting.

While these were problems associated with the semifinal, there were other issues which plagued the team during their league campaign, but got ignored due to their imperious march to the top of the league table.

The vice-captain, Rohit Sharma, had a dream run with the bat in CWC19. He became the first batsman to score five centuries in a single World Cup and became the tournament’s leading scorer. However, he was also dropped the maximum number of times before he even touched double figures.

In fact, the talk became that you drop Rohit and he will go on to make a century. Nobody spoke that if the catches were taken, most of them sitters, he would not have crossed a total of 100 runs. Well, the Kiwis didn’t drop the chance they got. And when Kohli joined him soon after, it was panic mode.

No.4 man
One of the biggest mysteries associated with world cricket, unsolved for reasons unknown, is that a country which has a problem of plenty as far as world-class batsmen are concerned, can’t find a No.4 player.

While the selectors could go back to the problem after the World Cup, it is surprising that nobody considered Dhoni as the ideal man for the job. Again, legacy became a mental block. Termed as a finisher, the team still continues to consider him for that job, while there are better finishers in Pant, Pandya, Jadeja, and even a Karthik. Dhoni should have played the role Taylor has played for the Kiwis. Steadying the innings in a crisis, or accelerating it when things are going good.

Mini Tests
The problem of the No.4 has also been aggravated by the thought process that a 50-over match is two T20 matches rolled into one. Hence, there was this talk about seeing a 500+ score in this edition.

It is ironic that in most matches there hasn’t been a combined score of over 500 from both teams. In fact, the 50-over matches are mini Tests, and therefore there was a strong need for a Ajinkya Rahane, or even a Cheteshwar Pujara in this spot. In their absence, Dhoni could have moved into the spot, not an IPL superstar.

Bad Day
Kohli said in his post-match press conference that 45 minutes of bad cricket cost India a spot in the final. There is also talk that it was a great campaign, and we had one bad day. But that is what champion teams are made for. To conquer that one bad day; definitely if it is a semifinal knockout match.

While tweeting, Sachin would not have thought this Indian team could have a bad day, but even if the thought crossed his mind, he would have been confident that it has the firepower to overcome all obstacles. He will definitely be more circumspect next time.

By C.P. Thomas