At one point during his innings, MS Dhoni would have looked at the scoreboard: Australia 328 for 7, India needing 121 in 48 balls. Far too many given at the end, far too many gone at the beginning, those damned Australians in their faces all over again. As if this black Sydney night, with its cool breeze, waving tricolours and general noise, was part of the forgettable tri-series gone by and not where he really found himself – in the World Cup semi-final, after almost six weeks in which Dhoni’s team produced cricket of an astonishing efficiency not known of Indian teams before them to find their way into the final four.
This World Cup performance was not a prototype of the India team or Indian cricket, at large. This preternatural form of play at one point actually turned worrisome, with the fear that the Indian team would trip when they absolutely could not afford to. On Thursday night, the Indian team didn’t trip, they ran into the one wall that they knew they couldn’t leap over or smash through, the one team they had failed to beat all through the southern summer.
What could not be quelled and overcome on Thursday, was the quality of Australia’s play and India’s own limitations, which turned up at the SCG in ultra-HD and surround sound at a time when they could not afford it.
In 2011, India’s World Cup campaign had stuttered and stumbled with their bowlers held together on duct tape and optimism, but when it came to the three knock-out games where they had to, as the Americans say, “Bring it”, they did so.
In 2015, India brought it all the way to the semi-finals and were then found out. A multi-nation, multi-venue, sprawling event like the World Cup can cover some holes, but it is a camouflage that is spread too thin. Against Australia, India ran up against opponents who were nothing like they had faced earlier in the World Cup: a side with range and depth in their batting all the way to hitters at No. 8, express left-arm pace and a personal back-of-hand knowledge of conditions. In the group stage, it was only South Africa who could have given the Indians a stern lesson in objectivity, but India batted first in Melbourne and were swept away by a plus-300 target and a wall of Indian sound ringing down from the stands.
India’s World Cup had been based on two set patterns of play which went awry today. When batting first, one of their top three going on all the way to the end and blasting off in the last 15 or 12 overs. When bowling first, wickets in the first 15 overs and turning the pressure on a twitchy middle-order.
Before the semi-final, the average score of any side batting first against India read 78 for 3. Australia got to 105 for 1 in 20, on the back of Steven Smith’s innings against a line-up he must believe he can face, maybe not blindfolded, but, at least, in the dark.
Had India dismissed the second opener and the rest of the middle-order of any other team, the way they did Smith, Glenn Maxwell, Aaron Finch and Michael Clarke within 51 runs in eight overs today, a total of 300 would have been a stretch. There lies the difference between “any other team” and the lot who will be competing for the World Cup on Sunday. Clarke’s departure marked the arrival of Australia’s late-order blunt instruments and their force became too much for the Indian seamers to absorb: 70 off the last six overs, 40 off the last three, including 27 off 9 balls from Mitchell Johnson.
“We got a bit of reverse-swing going so I felt our bowlers could have done slightly better,” Dhoni said. He believed the bowlers were slightly too full in their length – “We were slightly more up than where we should have been” – because of the nature of the pitch and then said, “We could have done something better, but it doesn’t really matter now.”
Yorkers, maybe, or a few bouncers, as three of the seven Australian wickets did fall to the short ball. An idea to be considered in theory but, against Faulkner and Johnson, the chances of it working are thin. At a time when the batsmen are fresh, the seamers pushed to their very edges, the best executed plans get tossed out of the window because of improvisation, big bats and too few men in the deep.
Depending on what could have been when Maxwell had started out on his 360 degrees of exploration, 328 looked respectable. Besides the first thought was, “At least it wasn’t the score from the 2003 final.” In a World Cup group game, going for the 328 would have been a lark; in a semi-final, it is an albatross that could bring down not just the mariner but his entire fleet.
Dhoni later said he knew that any target of over 300 required working to a plan. India went in with the intention of chasing that down because, like he said, “The good thing is our batting line-up, they know how to chase 300.” It is a pleasant belief in relatively low-intensity bilaterals. In a World Cup knock-out, 300 becomes a slippery slope. The highest India have ever chased in a World Cup is 288 against Zimbabwe and their highest chase outside Asia remains 325 in the 2002 Natwest Trophy final. To imagine that India could do this when they are a batsman short was not merely optimistic but delusional. In this World Cup, India’s designated “allrounder”, Ravindra Jadeja, has been one string short in his bow.
In order to pull this chase off, they would need their batsmen to work in clockwork unison, like they had done at the start of the tournament. To bat like they had, at first tilt, against Pakistan and South Africa. What turned up instead was an out-of tune orchestra. Dhoni himself confessed that once India had lost three wickets inside the first 20 overs, the pattern of the chase had slipped out of the side’s control.
“Once we were three down, it was difficult. Then we have to try to build a partnership and when you do that the run-rate goes up.” The dream scenario at the start of what Dhoni himself called a “gettable” total was to keep wickets till the 30th over and then make a run for it like a T20 match.
India didn’t even get to the point of having a good-enough go, because the men at the top got caught up in the rush of the moment and were trying to out-muscle Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. It brought Dhoni in by the 23rd over; maybe pushing himself up the order, like he did in Mumbai 2011, could have given him the batting position he required to be lord and master from behind the wheel.
India’s World Cup had featured until now one successful Plan A that had worked seamlessly throughout seven matches. They got their tightest two games early on in the tournament, and worked their way virtually on happy auto-pilot through the smaller nations in the group. Succcessful coin tosses, dropped catches, an opposition who could go from fierce to feeble when the pressure was cranked up a notch, worked in their favour. Perhaps a Plan B wasn’t really needed at that time. Except when Plan A goes to the cleaners very suddenly and some crisis management is needed. Like it did on Thursday night.
Four years ago, India had snatched Australia’s World Cup from them by taking maximum advantage of their own home conditions. Four years later, Australia did the same – on their own territory. Touche.
India’s 2015 World Cup is over, they are world champions no more and Dhoni stripped the moment of any mawkish emotion of having surrendered the World Cup. “Well, it’s something that doesn’t really belong to anyone,” he said. “We definitely took it from someone, so somebody took it from us. It’s as simple as that. You know, the best team takes it for four years and then everybody gets their own plans ready, depending on the conditions, and they challenge the one that has the Cup.”
That should put the entire jingoistic and frankly charmless “#won’tgiveitback” drama, that the Indian team have been involved in and their devoted fans have bought into, over the last few months, into proper perspective. Thank you, captain.