With just over a week for the World Cup semi-finals, not only have England lost the ICC no.1 ODI ranking to India, it is also unclear whether the hot favourites at the start will make the cut. Who would have thought?
Given their performances over the past 2-3 years, England were on a roll, brushing aside all opponents with authority and disdain not seen since the West Indies in their pomp in the 1980s.
It’s now come to a stage where with two matches still remaining, England must win both to guarantee a place in the last four. One win could just about push them over the line, depending on how other teams fare, or leave them clutching at straws!
This has been an extraordinary turnaround for in the first fortnight of the World Cup, English fans and critics couldn’t stop singing praises of Eoin Morgan and his team.
Everywhere I travelled and whomever one met, there was also admiration for the Indian team. But the verdict was unambiguous: while Kohli & Co would make good opponents in the final, England would break the jinx this time and win the title.
Given the uncertainties of sport, they still might, but it is a Herculean task. The brand of cricket that earned England plaudits and won them matches consistently, suddenly showed chinks.
Against both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, teams that were struggling, England flopped because they were unable to adapt to the conditions and trend of play which demanded circumspection over attack
The big problem confronting England now is that their remaining two matches are against two of the strongest teams in the competition — India and New Zealand — who will not allow any weakness to go unexploited.
Coaches and players these days have the benefit of instant video and data analyses, and the vulnerability under pressure of England’s otherwise strong batting — especially if Joe Root is dismissed early — has come through starkly.
All said, though, England’s woes should not be construed that India will win easily. On paper, they are still a formidable side: the batting extends to virtually no.1 and Morgan has regularly had seven bowlers at his disposal.
The tournament has already thrown up plentiful surprises, so India have to be on their guard. Beating England has enormous value as they are far stronger opponents than Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Sunday’s match will give Kohli and Shastri a better idea of how the players — individually and collectively — are tuned up for the crucial last fortnight of the World Cup.
It’s not just about winning two points now, important as this is, but also maintaining momentum for the challenges ahead.
While India’s performance has been impressive overall, there was a hint of struggle when batting against both Afghanistan and West Indies that the team management must address.
M.S. Dhoni particularly came under scrutiny in both these matches. His batting against Afghanistan was undistinguished, and against the West Indies he benefited hugely from a missed stumping chance.
There is a certain way in which Dhoni bats — taking the innings deep before launching into attacking strokes — which may cause anxiety among fans, but the India dressing room is well aware.
That said, he must ensure that the scoring does not become totally stagnant, and at least the singles and twos keep coming by rotating the strike.
The team would obviously like Dhoni in good rhythm, but I wouldn’t be unduly worried about his batting form. Remember, his wicket-keeping skills are arguably the best in the tournament, his experience and acumen unmatched.
Where the middle order is concerned, the time has perhaps come to punt on Pant. One can’t be overly critical of newbie Vijay Shankar. But if Shankar is going to be used ever so rarely as a bowler, then Pant looks the better batting option.
The bowling’s been flawless so far, and the biggest factor in India’s fine record not just in this tournament, but over the past couple of years in all formats.
The resounding success of Mohamed Shami, who was on the bench for the first four matches, shows not just the quality of the reserves, but also the internal competition among bowlers.
This means no player, however big, can take his place for granted, which is a fine dressing room culture to have....