The setting was perfect: a fine summer’s day, a sell-out crowd, a sea of blue and a home game for India at the Oval in London. Capitalising, Virat Kohli’s side, who are pressing the home team hard as favourites to take the 2019 World Cup, produced a near-perfect exhibition of excellent cricket to leave Aaron Finch’s Australians 36 runs adrift of their record 352 for 5.
The win, their second in two games, moves them into third spot on the table, level on four points with both England and the Aussies, who have both played three games, but behind the hosts on run-rate. The second round of qualifying is on 25 June, when England take on Australia at Lord’s. And the final round, when we are likely to know who will be in pole position for the semi-finals, which start on 9 July, is the India vs England showdown on 30 June at Edgbaston.
India have their noses in front at the moment, for which they have Man-of-the-Match Shikar Dhawan’s batting to thank. And Kohli’s superb, self-assured captaincy.
In a pre-game interview on TV, Kohli had told the world, including the Australians, that Jasprit Bumrah is ‘a massive asset for us’. Still, when the Indian captain, one of the ODI format’s premier chasers, won the toss and opted to take first strike, it might well have come as a surprise to many.
But it became clear—or it should have become clear—when Australia batted that this was finely calculated strategy, premised on absolute confidence in the value of a pair of quality of bowlers working in tandem with scoreboard pressure.
Required to score at a consistent average rate of seven runs per over, like India’s Dhawan and fellow opener Rohit Sharma, David Warner and Finch made a sedate start against Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Bumrah.
The first powerplay, comprising five overs from Bhuvneshwar, just three from Bumrah and two from Hardik Pandya, produced only 41 for India; Australia’s yielded 48—19 in over number 10 bowled by Pandya. The last three balls went for 6, 4 and 4 off the middle of Finch’s bat.
Kohli would not have known it but, at that stage, TV’s Win Predictor gave Australia only a 22% chance of victory. What he would certainly have noticed, however, is that Warner had been lucky not to lose his wicket to the first ball he faced from Bumrah and had played and missed several times at both ends.
Finch, meanwhile, had twice had close run-out shaves, arguably driven to risk-taking by the steady climb of the required run-rate. So Kohli persisted with Pandya at the Vauxhall End and defended with Kuldeep Yadav’s accurate wrist spin from the other end.
Finch (36 off 35) duly perished in Pandya’s fourth over, perhaps unsurprisingly, via the run-out route. By the time the combination of Yuzvendra Chahal (2/62) and Bhuvneshwar on the midwicket boundary accounted for Warner (56 off 84, 5 x 4), the left-hander had faced as many as 46 dot balls.
Australia had already used up almost half their overs and got just over one-third of the way to their target. And the asking rate was approaching nine.
Steve Smith, promoted to three, and Usman Khawaja tried valiantly to break the shackles but Khawaja (42 off 39) lost his leg-stump to Bumrah trying to force the pace. Kohli gave his two major spinners longer spells but only used them in tandem for a mere ten overs and used his pacers in short, sharp strategic bursts. And it was Bhuvneshwar who, at 238, had Smith (69 off 70), palpably lbw although India had to overturn Englishman Ian Gould’s original decision on review.
After that, Glen Maxwell (28 off 14) and Alex Carey (55 off 35), whose 50 came off just 24 balls, tried to keep their team on track with some lusty hitting. The scoreboard pressure, however, proved too much.
When Adam Zampa was caught off the last ball of the innings, the last six wickets had added 75, with Bumrah (3/61) and Bhuvneshwar (3/50) claiming four of them.
The highest percentage the Aussies earned on Win Predictor, incidentally, was 24% in the 13th over.
In the Indian innings, Dhawan was in imperious mood, striking 16 fours and often lifting the ball over the infield although he never once cleared the boundary. After their watchful start, he and Sharma (57 off 70) blossomed to post a 127-run partnership.
After Sharma departed in the 23rd over, in partnership with Kohli (82 off 77), the left-hander powered his team to 220 by the 37th over.
Kohli struck two sixes in his half-century, along with four fours, while Hardik Pandya, promoted to number four, hit four well-struck boundaries and three sixes in his 48 off just 27 balls.
In an eventful final over, Stoinis took a fine one-handed catch to send back Dhoni (27 off 14), was carved over midwicket for six by KL Rahul (11 off 3) and had Kohli caught by Mitchell Starc on the cover boundary before Rahul smashed his last ball to the long-on boundary.
In the end, neither the wickets nor the runs mattered, except perhaps in terms of the mindset of the Australian openers.
And of the Indian captain, who was furious to have surrendered his wicket in the fashion he did. Television images showed that the Australian captain too was livid after his run-out. Unlike his counterpart, however, it was too late to direct his destructive urges against the on-field opposition.
Maybe those energies will be channelled against Safaraz Ahmed’s unpredictable Pakistanis, whom the Australians, their confidence perhaps somewhat shaken, now take on at the Cooper Associates County Ground on Wednesday. At Trent Bridge on Thursday, India are up against Kane Williamson’s redoubtable top-of-the-table Kiwis.
Both of today’s captains will know that their team has to bring its A-game against “group of death” opponents striving to score bonus points when pitted against “Big Three” teams.
And whatever the outcome of their team’s game and the West Indies vs South Africa match tomorrow, both the Kiwi and the Pakistani supporters are likely to be cheering lustily for Jason Holder’s maroon-clad men when they take the field against England on Friday at the Ageas Bowl.
Another defeat for the home team would certainly have a measurable impact on the battle for pole position.