How should India approach the World Cup 2019 knockouts?

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India might find itself on the top of the league table, but its weaknesses have not gone unexposed along the way. It will need to hedge its resources and chart a course based on the tides of the tournament.

Shikhar Dhawan’s injury was no doubt a big setback but KL Rahul has taken baby steps towards donning the southpaw’s giant shoes. | AP

We have reached the business end of the 2019 World Cup. Just three matches remain in the tournament — the most significant matches of them all. Doing (or not doing) well in these matches can leave deep imprints in the collective memory of fans as well in the annals of cricketing history. Don’t think so? Ask South Africa or New Zealand. The former usually do well in the group stages and the mere mention of the word “knockout” is enough to bring out their worst — or at least, that is what we have seen conventionally. This time, though, they haven’t made it as far as that. The Kiwis, on the other hand, are perennial overachievers, often making it to the semifinals of a major tournament ahead of sides that are more fancied and possess greater resources. This time too, they have sneaked through in fourth place, although they were at the top of the table for most of the league stage, looking unbeatable up until their last three games.

In the next three matches, league position will count for zilch. Knockout matches typically tend to be tense, cagey affairs where the formbook can be thrown out of the window, and teams have traditionally chosen to bat first to impose scoreboard-pressure on their opponents. Given this, what can India do to maximise its chances of victory come Sunday?

Initially, it seemed as though injuries may have thrown the team off balance. Shikhar Dhawan’s injury was no doubt a big setback but KL Rahul has taken baby steps towards donning the southpaw’s giant shoes; although, Rahul is rather similar to Rohit Sharma at the top of the order in that both take their time to get going, and this tends to put undue pressure on the rest of the team. Similarly, Bhuvi’s injury lengthened India’s tail to Hanuman-esque proportions but Shami’s bowling has been sharp in patches. The muddle at No. 4 still exists but Rishabh Pant’s inclusion is supposed to have injected some power and dynamism into the side.

In terms of how the results have matched up to expectations, though, there is very little that has surprised fans about the Indian team performance. For instance, we did know that Bumrah was one of the best bowlers in the world — his showing has only reinforced this fact. Similarly, the team being reliant on the top order has been an open secret for a while now. While India closed out two tight games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan (games that they may have lost 20 years ago due to lack of quality bowling personnel), the reverse against England once again exposed the chronic deficiencies of this team, which shouldn’t be swept under the carpet by a couple of easy wins. The soft underbelly of the team that is the middle order still is an issue and should the top order have an off day, the team will most likely fall short of its target. The other issues are its inconsistency in taking early wickets, which leaves India playing catch-up for the rest of the game, and the leaking of runs after the 35th over puts pressure on the death bowler. In the knockouts, they will be playing against two formidable opponents who could exploit these weakness.

Therefore, to do well one has to pay heed to some surprising trends that have played out in unexpected ways, particularly as the tournament has progressed. Over the last four years, until this World Cup, England has been the second-most expensive place for non-home bowlers (behind Pakistan, where only a paltry three matches have been played), with bowlers conceding 6.21 runs per over. Some of it is no doubt due to the belligerence of the England team, but simultaneously, it is also true that England has also been the second-most expensive place for home bowlers as well (also behind Pakistan), at 5.88 runs per over. At this World Cup though, the average number of runs given per over have been 5.63, with four teams scoring at less. This means that the pitches haven’t been as flat as one would have initially feared.

Secondly, though 5.63 equates to a score of approximately 281, batting first and posting a decent score on the board has proven to put the side at an advantage. This tournament has produced 25 scores of 250 and above in the first innings of the 45 matches played during the league stage. Of these matches, only two (West Indies and Sri Lanka) have been lost by the team batting first, suggesting that the par score is much lesser than the suggested 281 and that scoreboard-pressure has had an influence on the players. With jaded pitches, one can expect this pressure to intensify in the final three matches.

Thirdly, the effectiveness of spinners has only reduced as the tournament has progressed. Between the 2015 and 2019 World cups, mostly fast bowlers and a few leg-spinners had done well in England. But if one were to examine the statistics from the first and second halves of the league phase, they are as different as chalk and cheese; in the former, leg-spinners held their own with the fast men but in the space of a couple of weeks, their returns turned less flattering. Therefore, it might be time to re-think the two-spinners strategy.

Therefore, for India, the way to go is to make minor changes to increase their chances of victory. See out the new ball against Boult, Starc, Archer and co. with a mix of caution and calculated aggression, with one of the Top 3 staying on till the 35th over (Kohli is due for a big score and Rohit Sharma might actually fail to convert one of these days); if batting first and in a favourable position, push Dhoni down to 7; if the team loses 2-3 wickets cheaply, promote him up the order to absorb the blow and rebuild the platform; the batting order in the second innings will depend on the required RPO and this should be decided in real time; play three pacers with Shami opening the bowling and bowling out his quota early, and Bhuvi and Bumrah to operate at the death; go with only one tweaker, and to fight England on their own terms, play Jadeja as the spinner to lengthen the batting order with Bhuvi coming in at 9. Of course, this is no guarantee of victory nor performance. But, based on how this tournament has played out so far, it may help India hedge its bets and mitigate some of its weaknesses, thus increasing the odds of success.

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