On Wednesday – near enough six weeks after the World Cup began – India play their first game that they actually have to win. The form guide suggests New Zealand will be swept away, but the form guide hasn’t been measuring must-win games.
The truism here is that Indian players are always expected to win and necessarily shoulder those pressures by default. But that’s not quite the same. You can’t mimic the fragility of a knock-out game where all can be lost.
India’s tournament so far
When India began their tournament against Australia last month, they wanted to win, but they didn’t have to win. There were plenty more chances. After achieving victory, it was a similar situation for their next game, only less so. Repeat.
The final group stage table says that five wins out nine was enough to make it through. India’s last four games have been played with at least that many wins already in the bag. There’s not been much at stake – not even places in the first XI given the squads are so small at this tournament.
This is, you would say, India’s only real weakness going into the final week. Virat Kohli is the tournament’s top scorer and is averaging 99. Mohammed Shami is averaging 9.56 with the ball. Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja have both conceded less than four runs an over.
Most impressively to our eyes, Rohit Sharma himself has eschewed caution. When you’re beating teams easily, the temptation is to play it safe just a little. If you’re confident you’re the better side, you don’t want chaos. You want everything to play out predictably.
However, in a World Cup where the old-fashioned death overs slog has been more a feature than the pyrotechnic start, Rohit has come out swinging. No-one has made more runs at a higher strike-rate (503 at 121.49). This has provided India with yet another area where they can be ahead of the game and it has also served as a message to his team – caution is the greater crime and I am going to demonstrate how much I believe that.
Upping the stakes
But now things change a little. India exited the group stages defending 410 against the Netherlands with Rohit giving pretty much everyone a bowl.
It’s obviously always good to see an over or two of Kohli’s part-time medium-filth, but that’s precisely because it doesn’t scream “top level bowling in a must-win match”.
Kohli took his first ODI wicket since 2014 in that game and Rohit his first since 2012.
“You want to create options within the team and I think we have that option now,” explained Rohit afterwards.
Really? That’s enough is it? Five balls against the Netherlands and one wicket a decade and you think you’ve acquired more options for a World Cup semi-final?
We very much doubt he does think that, in which case what exactly was that rambling group stage outro? It’s a bit of a hop and a skip from that kind of cricket to, ‘We absolutely have to win this match to secure the home World Cup final that everyone – everyone – expects us to win.’
India have won nine out of nine. They’ve set big totals. They’ve defended small ones. They’ve chased everything they’ve been set. They haven’t, until now, had to win any one specific game.
Rahul Dravid said it would be “inauthentic” to try and say the semi-final is “just another game”.
“We do recognise that it is an important game; it is a knockout game,” said Dravid. “We have to accept the fact that there is going to be a certain amount of pressure.”
It feels like India can probably cope with that – but let’s see.
- Please can we talk about the time Rohit Sharma ate 25 fried eggs in one go?
- What is it like to be Virat Kohli?
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