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Why did India lose the plot in one hour on the last day of the WTC final?

They needed to bat a little longer to beef up their total and eat into the overs left in the day. Why did they launch an all-out attack?

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
May I ask you to participate in a little exercise?
Try to answer these questions without using the Statsguru tool on this website or other online resources.
What was Kapil Dev's win percentage in ODI cricket as a captain? Did Sourav Ganguly's India team ever make it to the top spot in the ODI or Test rankings? If you think it did, for how long did it stay at that position? What was MS Dhoni's ODI win percentage compared to that of his predecessor, Rahul Dravid?
These are tough, somewhat nerdy questions, right? Let's make it easier. Who was the captain when India won their first World Cup? Who was the captain when India won the T20 World Cup in 2007, and the 50-over World Cup in 2011? You probably answered even before you read the questions fully. Of course it was Kapil Dev who led India to their first World Cup win in 1983, and Dhoni is the answer to the two other questions.
This is how legacies are defined in cricket. As much as some of us might want it to be about the cold numbers, it will never be that way in sport.
And that brings me to the recently concluded World Test Championship final. Though there were plenty of things that weren't right about the format, nobody is likely to remember the flaws. But everyone will remember that New Zealand are the first World Test champions in the format's 144-year history.
In a World Cup final, the only way to lay your hands on the trophy is to win the match. It calls for an all-or-nothing approach that almost guarantees excitement. The World Test Championship final was one of those rare occasions where even a draw was enough for a team to be crowned winners - albeit joint winners. When a draw is as good as a win, it's only fair that a team consider that option seriously. Going for a win is excellent, but if one looks improbable, the attempt should be to force a draw. You might not be good enough to win, but there's no shame in ensuring that the opposition isn't good enough to beat you.
That's where I think India missed a trick with the bat in the second innings. They might have started the final day with the thought of forcing a result, but the twin wickets of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara put them on the back foot in the first hour. Ajinkya Rahane never looked settled and Rishabh Pant kept taking his chances; he was fortunate to be unbeaten at lunch.
After Rahane was out, India's sixth-wicket partnership, between Pant and Ravindra Jadeja, began to blossom. Even as Pant chanced his arm, Jadeja played percentage cricket. The ball had got a little old and seemed to have lost some of its venom. Neil Wagner had gone around the stumps to bowl a barrage of bouncers. The teams went to lunch with India 98 runs ahead, with five wickets in hand. There were 75 overs left to be played in the day.
One of the beauties of Test cricket is these natural breaks in the game, which allow you to rein in your emotions, assess the situation and revisit plans. There could have been two possible game plans for India at that point and both required them to not lose a wicket in the first hour after lunch.
Once India had reached that point successfully, they could have tried either to accelerate or to bat as long as possible, given the number of wickets left. If they had batted without losing a wicket for the first hour after lunch, it would have added another 25-30 runs to their total, and more importantly, taken away about 15 overs from the 75 left in the game. That's when they could have pushed some more and set New Zealand a target that would have tested their will to win the game outright.
Pant, though, came out swinging in the second session. Jadeja was a little uncomfortable against the bouncer trap and lost his wicket, but in came R Ashwin intent on taking on every short ball that came his way.
The thing with Wagner's bouncer trap is that you simply can't hit your way out of it. You can tire him out but not hit him out of the attack. India needed to opt for the former plan but they chose the latter.
Not that Wagner dismissed Ashwin or Pant, but the way they played him spoke volumes. India were still not out of the woods - far from it, actually - when Pant chose to step down the track one more time, but this time he connected and the ball went skywards. Henry Nicholls took an excellent catch running backwards, and that sent India deeper into a hole. It might seem criminal to find faults in the team's highest run scorer in the second innings, but it's equally wrong if a player's performances are judged relative to what others have done.
Pant has allowed India to hope and believe ever since he made it back into the Test side. The innings in Sydney was full of bravado. The one that followed, at the Gabba will go down in history as one of the finest by an Indian batter in the fourth innings of a Test match. Pant's century against England was about controlled aggression - an innings of a man coming of age in Test cricket. He had started leaving a lot of deliveries alone, stopped playing against the spin or swing, and showed how much damage controlled aggression can do. He was not only India's version of an Adam Gilchrist-like keeper-batter but also allowed India to field five bowlers without worrying too much about their batting depth.
Pant's approach on the final day was either a reflection of his belief (or lack of it) in his skills against the swinging ball, or perhaps he was trapped in the cage of his own reputation. We have seen him do all sorts of unbelievable things with the bat. Who would dream of reverse-scooping James Anderson in Tests or Jofra Archer in white-ball cricket? Still, we had never seen Pant dance down the track to fast bowlers, even in white-ball cricket. He prefers playing from the crease, or going further inside the crease. So his stepping out felt a little odd. Was he not told at lunch that his methods weren't aligned with what the team wanted? Or was the plan indeed to stay aggressive, which meant the batters needed to find their ways to accumulate runs in trying conditions?
Ashwin's approach also mirrored what Pant was trying to do. In Southampton it wasn't the Ashwin who we saw take innumerable body blows in Sydney. Here, he was going for shots - pulls, drives, the lot. He was dismissed in the same over as Pant, driving a wide-ish delivery from Trent Boult. After that, it was only a matter of time. India had neither used up enough overs nor put enough runs on the board to swing the result in their favour.
Yes, the neutral venue was not really neutral, for it favoured New Zealand more than India. The preparation for both teams was also quite different, and that too favoured New Zealand more than it did India. But all that will be and should be forgotten. One thing that India might find tough to forget is the hour that cost them their name on the trophy.
Was it lack of planning, or the wrong planning, or the lack of proper execution? Only the Indian dressing room will know the answer to these questions. This Indian team has stayed at the top of the Test rankings for five straight years, but unfortunately history will remember the one hour that India didn't plan. The legacy of teams and captains is defined by the trophies they win; it doesn't matter how many battles you win if you fail to win the war.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash