If this is what transition looks like, India will take it every day of the week. Three wins in three games, batsmen that have scored without hassle, bowlers that have provided a steady feed of wickets, and arguably the best team of fielders the country has ever put out — to think of a favourite for the Champions Trophy now is elementary.
For a young side that has been freshly put together, it’s not been a bad way to begin. India may have landed on these shores minus illustrious names and thus with somewhat reduced expectations but in two weeks, the worm has turned. Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma put South Africa to the sword and inflicted similar pains on the West Indies; Ravindra Jadeja has bowled as if in Chennai; and Bhuvneshwar Kumar has quietly gone about stealing early wickets.
Not that there can be any comparison but in essence, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, and Zaheer Khan have not been greatly missed. Indeed only three of the 11 that played the 2011 World Cup final are here; yet M.S. Dhoni stands two games away from another major trophy.
His and India’s immediate hurdle, in the semifinals at the Cardiff Wales Stadium on Thursday, is a vastly familiar one in Sri Lanka. The teams have faced each other 40 times in the last five years; India has won the majority of those games, including seven out of 10 since the World Cup final. Yet, for all of India’s stern confidence, Sri Lanka — a team that revels in being in the knock-outs — presents a slightly tricky prospect. This is a rival on the upswing, one that fell at the hands of New Zealand before a surprisingly mighty recovery over England and a defeat of Australia. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene have, to nobody’s surprise, been at the vanguard of both those triumphs.
Dhoni’s first concern will be to keep the two quiet, for they are unlikely to find India’s spin bowling as unpalatable as the previous three opponents. Jadeja and R. Ashwin, to whose needs conditions here have been more acquiescent than supposed, have more riding on their efforts than in other games.
The rest of Sri Lanka’s batting does not overly induce worry; Nuwan Kulasekara, a swing bowling all-rounder not unlike Bhuvneshwar, and Lahiru Thirimanne, a solid middle-order batsman, have made fifties but contributions from other parts have been patchy.
Of Sri Lanka’s biggest bowling weapon, Lasith Malinga, India will hold no fear. Through the IPL and the countries’ repeated engagements, he is now no demon to face but a routine, good bowler. Malinga averages more than 40 over India, as against 26.12 in his career, while Virat Kohli has notably shredded him at Hobart. This will all create a swell of assurance though there will be some limited caution, particularly given the bowler’s form in this competition, where he has claimed seven wickets already.
Both teams have played at Cardiff once and although a fresh strip is to be used on Thursday, it is not expected to behave vastly differently.
The giant factor, however, is the rain, which marred the 2002 Champions Trophy final and ensured India and Sri Lanka split the prize. The forecast for Thursday is torrid, with some rain predicted throughout the day.
In the event of a washout, India, by virtue of topping Group ‘B’, will advance to the final.