Sports

Staying in the present

All the focus has been on the World Cup for months, but India can't afford to take eye off decider.

From the stroke of this year, the World Cup glare has been inescapable on Virat Kohli and his men. Irrespective of how hard he or the support staff wrenched to deflect the attention off the quadrennial grandee, they were promptly reminded of how many more months and days remained between then and their Cup opener, against South Africa in Birmingham, like an invisible ticking time-bomb.

It helped that India was winning, on the road in Australia and New Zealand, so the attention could be shed predominantly on the World Cup. So overwhelming was the fixation that everything – from permutations to combinations and strategies to statements — was weighed and measured from the World Cup prism. Understandable, hence, was the inclination to overlook the touring Australians, and as depleted a side as they’re, the series was never expected to scale the high notes these two sides had historically scaled.

In that vein, the series was never designed to be viewed in isolation — rather always hyphenated with the World Cup. Some would even argue that it’s the imminence of the Cup that has contextualised the series. On the eve of the series, Kohli did his impressionable best to sound pragmatic and put his feet in the present. When asked whether he will be tempted to experiment a lot more than he usually does, he defused it quipping: “We are playing to win the series or else I’ll leave the ball to hit the stumps.”

But on the field, he couldn’t hide the team’s motives, the predominance of experimenting — not wholesale but selective. There were several tell-tale signs that betrayed their intentions — such as MS Dhoni being rested for the last two games, the wrist-spinners playing in tandem just once, Kohli batting at no. 4 in Mohali, Rishabh Pant and KL Rahul blooded into the eleven, Vijay Shankar and Kedar Jadhav not only given extended spells but also introduced as early as in the Powerplays. Without the World Cup in the vicinity, the team management wouldn’t have resorted to making so many changes. Bowling coach Bharat Arun corroborated: “These are not necessarily the combinations which will be used during the World Cup but we would like to know how people perform in different situations for us to pick up a balanced team.”

Thus, in the mood, the matches were like warm-up games with an international stamp. Not auditioning but dress-rehearsing. For a fortnight, it didn’t seem to matter who their adversaries were, whether it was Australia or Afghanistan. It’s not a slight at Australia’s competency — in fact, their resolve and resources have not only made this series engrossing but also given India new headaches — but Kohli’s men couldn’t deflect the World Cup glare off their eyes.

A standalone virtue

Until the Mohali heist that is. Suddenly, thanks to Australia’s rebirth, the series decider in Kotla assumes a standalone virtue. For a solitary day —ironically India’s last international match before the World Cup — the focus is squarely on the series and not how well ironed the World Cup plans are. Abruptly, the debates and discussions are less about whether the conditions in England would suit the wrist-spinners or not, or whether Kohli should bat at no. 3 or 4, or whether there would be moisture on English pitches, but more about choking Ashton Turner, nailing Peter Handscomb, dealing with Adam Zampa or whether or not there will be dew at the Kotla. These are commonplace than profound concerns.

Among those botherations, assessing the dew factor would preoccupy them the most, after misreading its role in Ranchi and Mohali. In the third ODI, they factored the non-existent dew while in Mohali they under-weighed its mischief. It’s strange considering the familiarity of the players with the conditions and the groundstaff. Most of them should know that Mohali is prone to dew at this time of the year, whereas few matches have been dew-impacted in Ranchi.

A World Cup peg can be construed here as well — if they can’t glean details at home, how accurate would their reading be of conditions in England? If they can’t subdue conditions, and not defend 358, how can they be World Cup contenders?

But all those worries can be kept for the future, the immediate concern is whether it would dew at the Kotla. Historically it doesn’t. But how much can they rely on history, more so at these times of whimsical weather changes? How much can they rely on local know-how after Ranchi? Or how much their fate hinges on the toss. All of those thoughts could have been peripheral, but for Australia’s comeback. Thus, un-forewarned, all the focus is on snitching the one deciding the match. Suddenly, it feels like a suspenseful bilateral series in isolation without World Cup frills.

All of a sudden, India are missing some of their regulars and the permutational complexities the absentees have brought. Without Hardik Pandya, the balance has been thrown off-kilter. Of the two remaining all-rounders, one is essentially a batsman and the other a spinner. Shankar can’t bowl like Pandya, while Jadeja can’t bat like him. When Pandya plays, the fifth bowler is a genuine wicket-taking option. Shankar, despite his last-over heroics in Nagpur, isn’t yet a reliable wicket-taker. Without Mohammed Shami, India is missing the cutting edge in Powerplays and at the death. Without Dhoni, there has been a leadership vacuum, and Pant’s ‘keeping needs to improve considerably.

India wasn’t expected to be stretched this far, not when they’re considered World Cup contenders. But here there, fighting to salvage the series. Arun, though, tried to remain optimistic. “If you look at our success rate, it is more than 75 per cent and it is huge for a team. These things (Mohali chase) do happen. I am happy it has happened now because it throws open a lot of factors where we can improve before the World Cup,” he remarked of India’s inability to defend 358.

It’s how the narrative has changed imperceptibly in this series. If anything, it has made the series livelier. In fact, it’s the closest ODI series between India and Australia since 2001, on the back of an epic Test rubber. Between then and now, they have encountered each other across six series, but none have lasted till the wire.

The results will not be the be-all and end-all, from a World Cup perspective. But heading into the World Cup with a series defeat at home, against a depleted Australian side, infuses a sense of foreboding. More than that, they’re on the precipice of a rare series defeat at home, an outcome Kohli and his men would desperately want to stave off. Whatever, the World Cup glare has been deflected, fleeting though it might be.

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