Hamilton has always moved slowly. It is surrounded by dairy country, traffic is scant, courteous and proceeds moodily. For a short while, it had hosted a V8 Supercar series motor racing event on a 69-lap street circuit, but not after 2011. These days, the most hairy incident in town may possibly involve the sudden screeching of brakes to avoid stray pets.
On Tuesday, though in a lively, crowded Seddon Park, offering a cornucopia of music, noise and vibe, Hamilton was witness to cricket that lasted 86 high-velocity overs and left everyone, but mostly Ireland, breathless. When the noise died down, India won with 79 balls to spare and an extra free hour on their hands.
India hustled Ireland with speed and pace: not pace bowling or impressive readings on the speed gun, bouncers and yorkers, but a foot-on-the-pedal approach with ball and bat which left Ireland with little time to think. It has given India top billing in their group making their quarter-final opponent the lowest-ranked Group A team. Knockouts may be very thin ice, but the knowledge that the opposition is a relatively weaker side does help a team stay more sure-footed.
The irony was that all told, the Irish did not fare as badly as India's other opponents in this World Cup so far. They started by putting up the highest score against the Indian bowling in the tournament. Yet, going by a flat deck, Seddon Park's history, their own limited bowling reserves, a total of 259 must have told them that they had been had. In the first World Cup game here, Zimbabwe had scored 277 in reply to South Africa's 339.
India's pace bowlers had a rare imperfect start as William Porterfield went after Umesh Yadav, Paul Stirling pounced on Mohammed Shami and Mohit Sharma at the slight error of length. The first ten overs saw Ireland score 60 (57 off the pacers in the first nine), the most runs conceded by India during those overs in this World Cup. It was not McCullumesque monumentalism, but it displayed Irish intent.
The spinners came on in the tenth over and within five, Ireland were entangled. In the space of 62 minutes, India bowled 22 overs, a rate which even had the ground scorer "hopping."
In that period, Ireland scored 87 runs for the loss of two wickets, and the boundaries dried up because of R Ashwin and Suresh Raina. All sorts was offered to Ireland: Raina's offspinners were fired in with the wicket gripping a little and he raced through his quota of ten and sent back Ed Joyce, who made room and found himself bowled by one that was neither short nor wide. Ashwin altered his pace, held the ball back from the struggling Irishmen and by the time the spin-cycle ended, more than half their innings was gone and there was only 144 on the scoreboard. Their third wicket wicket fell as soon as Mohit returned, which marked what was to be a tipping point.
Niall O'Brien said of the spinners' over rates: "[It was] good play, smart cricket their spinners don't have much of a run up, they try to sneak through the overs, they kept the run rate down."
MS Dhoni said he had been tempted to bring the spinners on early. "If this was an important game for us, maybe I would have brought in the spinners closer to the fourth over. But I still went ahead with the fast bowlers in the first ten overs, then I felt let's get the most out of this game." His bowling changes needed to be, he said, "flexible."
"I wanted the fast bowlers to have a bit more go also. I thought maybe I can still use the new ball, get a few nicks if possible. The new ball was coming on nicely to the bat, even though the slower one was getting stuck a bit. So I thought let's go ahead with the fast bowlers for a bit more time and (then) bring on the spinners. That's what I really did."
Ireland's plan, their captain Porterfield said later, had been to "not to go too hard too soon" knowing the size of the ground and the state of the wicket. While he said Ireland were not affected by the speed of the spinners racing through their overs and gave due credit to the Indian bowlers, but added that the batsmen were unable to form the platform going into the 30-plus overs. "We didn't catch things at the back end and lost wickets as well," he said.
Cause and the effect can get a bit blurred with that kind of argument, but the end result was that Ireland found themselves with an under-par score and India were able to control the pace of play.
India's batsmen could not have asked for more, certainly not Rohit Sharma who has so far had an average kind of World Cup. A belter, medium-paced bowling, and the cosy proximity of boundaries. Two dropped chances of Dhawan, both off Mooney within the first seven overs and the game was over. It gave Dhawan what Dhoni called his "15 minutes," which like most batsmen, he too needs to settle in.
Once set, Dhawan pulled out a range of his strokes, a swivel-pull off Kevin O'Brien and a six off one hand to George Dockrell were things of both beauty and power. India rocketed to 73 off their first ten overs and the target was not chased as much as wolfed down. Rohit fell for 64, trying to dab Stuart Thompson a tad too cleverly and playing on, but more urgency followed. As Rohit trudged back glumly, he was crossed by an onrushing Virat Kohli, who headed for the wicket like a commuter with a train to catch. Or in keeping with Kohli the superstar, the last guy rushing into business class before the gates are drawn shut.
India have moved so quickly through this World Cup, that they are looking too hard to slow down.