Don't blame Dhoni or the boundary, the better side won
The curious ending to the match provoked anger and suspicion among fans but there are good cricketing reasons why it ended the way it did
A day before India took on England at Edgbaston, a comment published on our site summed up the significance: "For the first time since 1947, 1.2 billion Indians, 200 million Pakistanis, 150 million Bangladeshis and 20 million Sri Lankans will be praying for an Indian win."
Consequently, the anguish over India's 31-run loss, featuring a slowdown late in the chase, has been widespread. The result instantly ended Sri Lanka's thin and largely academic semi-final chances, and jeopardised the prospects of Pakistan and Bangladesh. The passion of the subcontinental fans has been the soul of this World Cup but, as ever, it's a double-edged sword and, expectedly, angry questions were raised.
Here's an attempt to answer some of the big ones, without emotion and with, hopefully, some cricket sense.
What was Dhoni thinking in those final overs?
I would be a millionaire if I knew. But let me hazard a guess. First, it shouldn't be a huge surprise if you have seen MS Dhoni bat in the last few years. His calculations are his own, and they are based on assessing the conditions, opposition bowlers, and his own ability. These calculations work out very often for him in the IPL, where there are, inevitably, bowlers to target and where, because of the shorter match length, it is possible to create a higher impact in a shorter burst. This approach was always going to be riskier in the 50-over game, but it was a known risk for India.
There is also bafflement about why he doesn't unleash the big strokes until the very end when he is clearly capable of them - two sixes in the last over in the match against West Indies, and one against England here - but he has clearly built his game plan on the elimination of risk till it is unavoidable. It is possible - and this is the most plausible explanation - that he had abandoned all realistic possibilities of a win much earlier than everyone else, and took the more pragmatic option: protecting India's net run-rate for future eventualities.
We have this from our stats wizard Shiva Jayaraman:
- If we assume India were all out at 267, when Hardik Pandya got out - which was the worst case scenario - India's NRR would have been 0.718.
- This would have meant that, had India lost by an average margin of 63 runs in both their remaining games and Bangladesh won by an equivalent margin in both theirs, they would overtake India on NRR.
- Reaching 306 has given India a 10-run cushion - the average defeat margin can be as high as 73, and Bangladesh need to win by 73 runs or more.
If you, like many cricket analysts, think that this should not be the attitude of a team looking to win a World Cup, you are possibly right. It will be absolute conjecture to say that Dhoni's arrival influenced the way Hardik Pandya batted, but for someone who makes a living out of smoking spinners for sixes, to knock three singles off Adil Rashid in what would most certainly be the final over by a spinner, when 95 runs were required off 54 balls, defied logic. Pandya was 22 off 12 balls when Dhoni arrived; he scored 23 off the 21 balls he faced after that.
But it's worth understanding that Dhoni didn't, in this instance, cost India the match. His innings only made the defeat look worse than it might have been.
Did India do this to stuff Pakistan?
Normally, such a question wouldn't merit an answer, and such a question was also raised by Indian fans when Pakistan lost a match in similar circumstances during the Champions Trophy in 2009 - India needed Pakistan to beat Australia in order to qualify. But since someone as prominent, and sensible in my mind, as Waqar Younis has raised the point, the matter should be put in perspective.
Waqar might know this himself: international cricketers don't go about losing matches to stuff someone else. There are the questions of momentum, confidence and pride in personal performance. And, of course, simple logic: who would India rather play in the semi-final, a team that they have beaten seven times in the World Cup, or the team with the maximum potential to beat them.
There is also this other thing: the better team on the day won. It was a must-win game for England, and they brought their best game in the conditions that suited them perfectly.
Did the shorter square boundary on one side go against India?
Virat Kohli called it crazy and bizarre that they were confronted with the shortest permissible square boundary on one side on the flattest of pitches. It certainly hurt India more as England exploited it mercilessly against the Indian spinners. Jonny Bairstow targeted that boundary forensically, hitting five of his six sixes to that region, and Ben Stokes pulled out an outrageous reverse slog for six off Yuzvendra Chahal over the square boundary there.
But the playing square wasn't picked yesterday. The rotation of pitches at all matches and at all venues was finalised, according to information available to us, through a long and collaborative process among the groundsmen, the ICC and the ICC's pitch consultant as early as in the first week of January.
And the ground dimensions were the same for both teams; England chose the team for the conditions by opting for the hit-the-deck variety of Liam Plunkett over the offspin of Moeen Ali. And since they had the option of Stokes, Rashid, their lone spinner, bowled only six overs from the more suitable end. Between them, the Indian spinners went for 160 from their 20 overs, and Kohli couldn't have bowled both of them from the same end.
Of course, the dimensions suited England. But even perfect conditions need perfect execution. They blasted nearly 150 in 15 overs from the tenth over; finished the innings with a flourish; Chris Woakes, their opening bowler, delivered three successive maidens and they pulled out brilliant stops. India were really stuffed when they were 28 for 1 in the tenth over. And they didn't manage a single six till the final over of the match.
Did Rohit and Kohli mess up then?
For India to have a chance to mount their highest-ever World Cup chase, and given the kind of batting to follow, Rohit Sharma and Kohli needed to bat big. The standard Indian template, while both setting up and chasing, is to set the platform with wickets in hand, and build the tempo evenly. The absence of Shikhar Dhawan has cost India early momentum, and KL Rahul made this worse yesterday with a nine-ball duck that left them at eight runs after three overs. Rohit just couldn't find the gaps, and Kohli, after two successive fours off Jofra Archer, swung and missed a few times.
But credit to the England bowlers. Woakes was McGrath-like for five overs, and it took a walk down the pitch from Kohli to hit a four off him, and Archer, bowling regularly at over 145 kph, hardly bowled a hittable one. India's 28 for 1 was the lowest Powerplay score in the tournament, and India have never chased over 325 from such a frugal start.
Did India choose the wrong team for the conditions?
Hindsight produces infinite wisdom, but they went with the bowling combination that has made them the ODI team that they are. Wristspin is often the best antidote against mid-innings power-hitting, and picking Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Ravindra Jadeja ahead of Kuldeep Yadav or Yuzvendra Chahal would have meant fiddling with what's not broken. Few would have anticipated them going for 160 off 20.
Then drop Kedar Jadhav for the next game?
Possibly, but not because of this performance. He was not the reason why India lost so badly in the end. He had no scope to influence the match. The pitch was absolutely sluggish by the time he came in to bat, and the asking rate was beyond him. But if he is not bowling, or being trusted to bowl, India ought to reconsider his utility.
Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal