Can India push the accelerator early?
The Oval danced to various drum beats on Thursday. Rhythms of bhangra, papare, dandiya accompanied and, at times, did jugalbandi with the thudding Scottish drums.
Amidst such revelry, the cricket flowed gently. One man who created his own drumbeat was Shikhar Dhawan, the best batsman in the tournament's last edition in England. In this edition, Dhawan has been India's best batsman in terms of runs.
Having got starts in the two warm-ups and a watchful 68 against Pakistan, Dhawan had adapted quickly to English conditions. Against Pakistan, Dhawan played a suicidal stroke against a full toss to be caught in the deep. In that match, it was Dhawan's opening partner Rohit Sharma who had taken the lead role, before falling nine short of a hundred. Against Sri Lanka, Dhawan did not let any casualness creep in and took advantage of easy batting conditions to get his tenth ODI century after Rohit had fallen.
During their four-year partnership, which started in the 2013 edition of the Champions Trophy, the Dhawan-Rohit combination has cobbled together ten century partnerships, seven of which have come outside India. Three of them have come since July 2015 when the ICC introduced new playing conditions allowing only four fielders in the outfield. Since the last World Cup, they have the best average for openers overseas - 55.61.
Due to the stability they provide at the top, India have managed to have a blast in the final ten overs, setting up competitive totals. Each time India have scored big (at least 300) since July 2015, they have managed to do it without losing too many wickets. But does the old template of consolidating till the slog overs prove beneficial for India?
Since the start of 2016, India have lost three matches failing to defend 300-plus targets. That is the joint-highest number of defeats along with England, who have played more ODIs during this period. However, England have won ten matches having posted 300-plus totals compared to only two by India.
On an average, India have scored 4.96 runs per over overseas in the first Powerplay (1-10 overs, compared to England's 5.06), 5.28 in the middle phase (10-40 overs; England 5.59) and then dashing to the finish at 8.40 in the final ten overs (England 8.55).
The success of the Dhawan-Rohit combination certainly allows Virat Kohli and the middle order the liberty to settle in. But there is also the danger that it can provide a false sense of security, something that could rob the team of runs in the end. This has already happened twice in the two matches this tournament.
Against Pakistan, when Dhawan departed, India were 136 after 24.3 overs. By the end of the 35th, India had suddenly slowed down, scoring just 38 runs in ten overs. Rain interruptions did play a role in the batsmen's mindset, but Kohli would go on to admit India were defensive.
Four days later, against Sri Lanka, the openers once put on 138 before Rohit fell in the 25th over. Although Dhawan and MS Dhoni ensured India did not fall apart after a middle-order collapse, India's run rate had gone down significantly.
In the 30-40 overs phase this tournament, India's run rate has been a sullen five runs per over, which is fifth among the seven teams - Pakistan are yet to reach the 40-over mark. That is significantly lesser than the 6.03 (while batting first) average that India have scored during this phase since July 2015 (second behind England).
Against Pakistan, Rohit slowed down as he saw the three-figure milestone on the horizon. He took 26 balls to move past 80 after reaching 70. Dhawan's strike rate actually improved as he neared the century against Sri Lanka - he took 21 deliveries to move from 80 to 100. It is just not the Indian openers. Most batsmen usually hit the brakes as they approach the 90s. Taking too long during that phase affects the team eventually.
All three of Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli bat with similar mindsets: they like to settle in first before they start pulling the trigger. But is it time for India to re-calibrate while batting first? Can the top order start taking more risks, with one of the three taking a more aggressive route? India even have an additional option in KL Rahul, an aggressive batsman, for such an approach.
Depending on how good the batting conditions are, there could also be be scope at times to send in one of the three power-hitters - Yuvraj Singh, Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni - to play the pinch-hitter role with 20 overs to go. India have a capable lower middle-order, who can be ruthless in the final 10 overs, a phase where India have the best run rate.
Are India willing to take the risk in the long run? Kohli is cautious. "It's a thin line," he said on Saturday. "If you're trying to get 20 extra and you lose the set batsmen in that period of time, you end up getting 20 less. So you never know what is enough when you're batting first. All you have to do is try to defend the total they put on the board."
For now Kohli wants to follow the tried and tested method. "Every team is taking their time initially in getting in. I think the middle overs are something that teams are looking to target. We are doing something different, which is capitalising on the last few overs better than anyone. Yes, if you end up doing both those phases as well, then [you] probably end up getting a few more runs and then you also are good as a team."
As the influence of T20 cricket deepens, the middle overs certainly is a phase where the top teams are looking to stamp their authority. India are in a good position to move away from the old-school template and become the reformists.
Stats inputs by Gaurav Sundararaman
Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo