<
>

Kohli's India, a scary machine

play

Pakistan were reeling at 146 for 5. MS Dhoni pointed to the third man fielder, asking him to come fine. Kedar Jadhav, the fielder, didn't acknowledge because he was not watching Dhoni. Dhoni carried on waving. With every passing second the wave became stronger and faster till Dhoni nearly folded both his hands to plead Jadhav to listen to him. Finally, Jadhav noticed the senior glovesman's signal and quickly shuffled to the desired position.

****

Bhuvneshwar Kumar had walked out of the ground having just bowled 16 deliveries. It was the fifth over of the Pakistan innings, but already Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar had built intense pressure by tying up the opposition openers with tight lines and lengths. As soon as Bhuvnewshar handed the ball to the umpire and walked out, Virat Kohli turned to Vijay Shankar. He might have been nervous for certain, but he swung the ball into Imam-ul-Haq's pads to become only the third man to fetch a wicket off the first ball on World Cup debut.

***

Kohli was fielding in the inner circle. Pakistan were in disarray after Kuldeep Yadav and Hardik Pandya had broken their back in the middle overs. Kohli picked up an innocuous tap from one of the batsman and threw it back lamely towards Dhoni. The throw went high over the wicketkeeper, making him stretch and could have resulted in unnecessary overthrow. Kohli quickly owned up to his mistake to Dhoni by raising his hands at the end of the over.

***

These examples only go on to illustrate why Kohli's India are being called favorites this World Cup. In all three departments of the game, Indian players have shown the presence of mind, the patience, the smarts, the hunger and the ability to snatch and own the situation at all points of time in a match.

Watch on Hotstar (India only): Highlights of Kohli's 77

In their tournament opener, in difficult conditions in Southampton, against South Africa, Rohit Sharma played the "best" innings of his life according to his captain. Then he hit a quiet half-century even as his opening partner Shikhar Dhawan distracted the Australians. Unfortunately, Dhawan picked up a hairline fracture in that match, forcing the think tank to figure out a solution. KL Rahul, who was chosen as a third opener, who had become the accidental No. 4 on the eve of the tournament, was promoted.

Rahul admitted he was nervous on Sunday. He left alone more balls (11) than all other batsmen put together from both sides. Yet he walked back with a vital half-century, having stitched a century partnership with Rohit, despite both men opening for the first time together. Rahul might have been quiet in the first Powerplay, but in the company of Rohit, he ran more singles in the last year for an Indian opening pair.

Adaptability and flexibility are terms Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri have repeatedly used in the last two years. Even on Saturday, Kohli said India did not believe in rigidity. The best example of that approach was to send Pandya in as No. 4 in the game against Australia and on Sunday. In a matter of a dozen balls Pandya, using those snappy wrists of his, can crack the opposition bowling without breaking any sweat. Ask Australia.

The reason that Hardik, Rahul and MS Dhoni can bat with freedom and no pressure is only because the top order comprising Rohit, Dhawan and Kohli has been solid. Rohit has two centuries in three matches and a 50, Kohli has scored crucial half centuries in the last two matches and Dhawan demolished Australia with a matchwinning century. India has worked out a strategy where at least one player in the top order needs to bat deep to alleviate the pressures on the middle order and the lower order can face with not much time to settle in. And to make that plan work, the pace of the innings at the start, even if it can tend to be slow, doesn't matter.

Not that that is a rule of thumb, though. As Rohit proved today scoring his fastest half century while India recorded one of the quickest starts in the last year - not only did they snatch the momentum straight away, but also deflated Pakistan's well-stacked plans.

Complementing that were the Indian fast bowlers. Take the first Powerplay. As per ESPNcricinfo logs, Indian new-ball bowlers pitched 36 balls on length and short-of-good-length (15 +21) conceding 22 runs; there were 20 fuller-length deliveries going for 12 runs and just one full toss along with three short deliveries.

WATCH on Hotstar (US Only) - Match highlights

In contrast, Pakistan's new ball bowling unit comprising Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali and Wahab Riaz bowled 28 short-of-length deliveries at nearly a run a ball (30 runs) and three short balls (5 runs). There were just 16 length and 13 full-length deliveries of which Indian openers scored 17 runs. If Bumrah and co bowled tight lines with discipline, pitching accurate lengths, Pakistan's experienced bowling unit sprayed it wide and short on a pitch where the margin for error was minimal.

Overall, India's bowling unit has been the most disciplined in the tournament. India have bowled more deliveries on line-lengths that have gone for fewer runs. As per the logs if you restrict to just length and short-of-good-length balls outside off, India have pitched 62 deliveries in this zone, conceding only 20 runs. In comparison, Australian bowlers have pitched full and on length leaking runs at a 5-plus run rate.

So far this World Cup, India's new-ball bowlers have conceded a boundary every 11.25 balls in the first Powerplay, which is the joint least along with West Indies.

Another area where India outscored Pakistan was the fielding. While Indian batsmen stole a single or two at will, daring the arm of every opposition fielder, Pakistan batsmen could not afford the same indulgence because of the intensity and athleticism of the Indian fielders. Even at end of the day, when the teams returned for a few overs, KL Rahul dropped a catch in the deep. Kohli was furious and snapped his hands to express his dissatisfaction. Pakistan bowlers were furious, too, but at the lethargic approach toward fielding by some of their team-mates.

If you take all these things into account, you can see how far India have come since the 2017 Champions Trophy final they lost to Pakistan. It was that loss that prompted India to recalibrate their approach to the limited overs game. And they have not been shy to take bold decisions.

Pakistan should not feel bad. Only for the fact that they were beaten by a very good team. Kohli's India is not just consistent, not just brave, not just smart. It out-muscled South Africa then Australia and now Pakistan in every department. It has become a scary machine.