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Match Analysis

Tacky pitch and old habits haunt India in semi-final flop show

Where did India go wrong in testing conditions in Adelaide? And can they completely change their approach with the same set of batters?

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
It is to be expected that there will now be plenty of ridicule around the new approach India had promised when Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid took over. Most of it will be opportunistic, though there are those who have genuinely been asking the question since the first match of this T20 World Cup. Either way, any such criticism without acknowledging the conditions this World Cup is being played in will be hollow.
Let's first of all look at how India have played this World Cup. They came to Perth early, played a warm-up match in Brisbane, saw the ball hooping around in Melbourne, and decided that these were not conditions where they needed to risk being bowled out for 120 in pursuit of 200. They chose to set a base, and then go big in the last ten overs, which has been the trend in the whole tournament.
Dravid praised this approach, saying it was part of his batters' adaptability, and trusted them to change their ways should they come across a pitch that calls for a score of 200.
That brings us to the pitch in the semi-final against England. The trends in Adelaide have been clear: in day matches there this tournament, batting first has been great because the pitch keeps getting slower and slower, but in both the night matches before today, Bangladesh and Afghanistan gave India and Australia, respectively, a scare when chasing. Australia were desperate to secure a big win but Glenn Maxwell revealed their helplessness against the conditions, saying they just couldn't force the pace when batting first but then the ball skidded on nicely when they bowled.
In light of that, India's first curious decision was to look to bat first should they win the toss; they got what they wanted, as Rohit Sharma said at the toss, though England won the right to decide and promptly put them in. This was a damp pitch with a strip of grass just outside off at one end running along the length of the pitch. That dampness was likely to dry out soon. Dravid was asked at the post-match press conference if they looked at those two night matches at the venue before deciding they would want to bat first.
"At that 15-over mark, we felt we were probably 15-20 short… In the end, it looked like we were a lot shorter than even 15-20. [But] I think we should have been able to get to 180-185 on that wicket"
India head coach Rahul Dravid
"Yeah, honestly we looked at those things," Dravid said. "Also runs on the board was something in a semi-final. We had been batting well. We were one of those teams that were, even in these conditions, scoring 180, 180-plus. I think we had done it two or three times in this tournament. So we were playing well."
However, the way India got to those scores of 180 is not sustainable. An early wicket - which of course you cannot control - followed by a slow rebuild by Virat Kohli, leaving Suryakumar Yadav to do the heavy lifting. In his defence, Kohli's numbers at the death are great, but he risks leaving himself too much to do the way he bats.
Also, those scores of 180 came against Netherlands and Zimbabwe, not quite England who - contrary to what the doomsayers feared, when looking at the used pitch put out for this game - are arguably the best at playing on a slow surface. They have a world-class legspinner in Adil Rashid, an offspinning allrounder in Moeen Ali and a legspin-offspin allrounder in Liam Livingstone. And India are among the worst when conditions are tacky because their top three can be shut out by spinners.
"When the game started, the boys were saying it was a little bit tacky, it was a little bit slower," Dravid said. "Having said that, they [England] bowled really well. I thought they were really good up-front. They hit really good lengths, didn't really let us get away. At that 15-over mark, we felt we were probably 15-20 short, and we really had a good last five overs.
"I think Hardik [Pandya] was absolutely brilliant, and that's exactly… In the end, it looked like we were a lot shorter than even 15-20. [But] I think we should have been able to get to 180-185 on that wicket."
That adaptability Dravid spoke of throughout the tournament probably went missing a little, but it is not entirely accurate to say India didn't have the intent. Barring Kohli, who seems to have the role of batting through the innings and looking to score playing orthodox cricket, batters did try to hit out. Rohit looked scratchy because he tried to get away when the pitch was at its most difficult. There were nine boundary attempts in his 28-ball innings, he also tried to unsettle Rashid by sweeping him, but he just couldn't quite get the timing right on a slow surface. Hardik tried to take Rashid on as soon as he walked out, but whenever he tried to hit, he ended up edging to short third.
That is not to take away from England's bowling, though. They had the variety and quality in their bowling to make sure batters had to take risks to hit boundaries. Rashid, especially, bowled beautifully after being attacked first up. Livingstone, called upon to bowl instead of Moeen because of two right-hand batters in the middle, gave the ball rip, found turn and also bowled accurately.
India probably missed a trick in not promoting left-hand batter Rishabh Pant after playing him ahead of Dinesh Karthik precisely because they didn't want Rashid to have a big say.
To say, as Rohit did at the post-match presentation, that the bowlers didn't turn up is barking up the wrong tree. When you are defending a small total, you have to attack with your lengths, which is what the bowlers did. There was no swing on offer, and England got the opportunity to attack them, which they did with aplomb.
In the end, after a whole year of working hard to change the mindset of the batters - and Rohit was at the forefront of it, taking risks while KL Rahul and Kohli took their time - the team management will be frustrated their exit came playing cricket that pundits are calling "timid".
This is a question only they can answer: in the pursuit of results - a tight win against Pakistan which was no vindication of conservative batting, a defeat against South Africa, a scare from Bangladesh, two facile wins against Netherlands and Zimbabwe - did they lose sight of the process? Did they fall back into the bad old ways where the default was to take the conservative option in thinking a score on board will bring pressure in a knockout match? Rahul didn't once try to hit out of a lean patch. Kohli didn't attack spin. Did they try enough to fight the conditions?
The larger question perhaps is, can they completely change their approach with the same set of batters? Dravid said it was too soon and disrespectful to think of the future of some of the senior players in the immediate aftermath of this defeat, but whenever he, Rohit and selectors sit down to review this tournament, that question will stare them right in the eye.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo