How the pieces of the jigsaw fell in place for incredible India

A new approach was the starting point, and since then, whatever India have done has worked like a charm

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
India are unbeaten heading into Sunday's World Cup final against Australia in Ahmedabad. The impressive results are a by-product of a mindset change they brought in collectively, the origins of which can be traced back to Adelaide last year, where they were handed a ten-wicket thrashing by England in the T20 World Cup semi-final.
In the aftermath of that campaign, Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid decided to tear down old templates. Just before the Adelaide game, freakish performances like Virat Kohli's magic at the MCG against Pakistan helped paper over fault lines, but India were far from being the world-beaters they look like today.
They addressed the issues head on.

Rohit, the hammer, leads by example

Rohit has shown the way. He has changed his approach in the powerplay, adopting a high-risk game, which has worked wonderfully.
Take the semi-final, for example, against New Zealand in Mumbai, where he was up against the same side that had caused India's downfall in Manchester four years ago. Rohit negated Trent Boult's swing early on by charging at him and hitting him through the line and in the air. Next minute, he was flicking length balls over midwicket. India raised 58 inside six overs, with Rohit racing to 45 off 22 balls. It was a kick in the gut for New Zealand.
Rohit's approach that afternoon was no different from the rest of the tournament. It has had a massive impact on the team's overall game. India's powerplay strike rate of 109 in the first ten overs is the highest among all teams in the competition. Rohit has scored more than half of India's powerplay runs (354) this tournament, at a strike rate of 133. He has also hit the most sixes in a single edition of the World Cup already.
But he has knuckled down when the situation has demanded. Like the 87 against England in a game where the next best was 49. On a two-paced Lucknow deck where run-scoring was challenging against a back-of-a-length attack, Rohit dropped anchor. Yet, he comfortably outpaced all other batters.

Kohli anchors a dream script

Rohit's robust approach has helped take a lot of pressure off the middle order, especially Kohli, who has played according to the team's demands. He sits atop the hundreds tally in ODIs, having surpassed Sachin Tendulkar's record of 49 in Mumbai two nights back. Kohli also has the most runs in a single edition of the World Cup, having crossed Tendulkar's mark of 673 from 20 years ago.
There's simplicity and a robotic precision to Kohli's new methods, which sit just about perfectly in a batting order that has Rohit's fire, Shubman Gill's consistency, Shreyas Iyer's fearsome ball-striking that has now brought back-to-back hundreds, and KL Rahul's inventiveness.
In India's very first game of the World Cup, the soft underbelly of the middle order - Iyer and Rahul were coming back from lengthy injury layoffs - stood exposed at 2 for 3 against a rip-roaring Australia attack defending 200.
"Play it like Test cricket for some time, and see where it goes," Kohli told Rahul then. He reined himself in remarkably after offering an early life - a pull that was grassed by Mitchell Marsh. It could have been 20 for 4. It wasn't. It's the slice of luck great batters use to their advantage. Kohli shelved his flair for grit and walked off to 85 valuable runs to put a 'W' on the points table.
That knock set into motion a dream run, where it almost looks like he can't be dismissed, as if there is a century there for the taking. He has more runs and more hundreds than any other batter in this tournament. This includes his first in a World Cup semi-final. Kohli hadn't scored even a fifty before that in a knockout game of the World Cup. He has played the conditions and situations, while Rohit and the middle order have punched attacks.

The balancing act after Hardik's exit

It was perhaps India's biggest fear. One you hope you don't have to confront. Hardik Pandya picking up an injury, that is.
When Hardik injured his left ankle three balls into his opening over against Bangladesh in India's fourth game, India had a problem: how to replace a two-in-one player.
Without him, they decided to punt on a five-bowler strategy. Enter Mohammed Shami, amid chatter around lack of batting depth, and the result was 5 for 54 in a four-wicket win over New Zealand.
It was tougher against England in Lucknow, as India huffed and puffed to 229 for 9. In that game, India had to get through nearly ten overs with their lower order exposed. Jasprit Bumrah made sure they did that with an innings of 16 off 25 balls, priceless runs in the overall context.
Then, with ball in hand, Shami stepped in to wreck England's middle order to build on Bumrah's sensational opening burst. Shami vs Ben Stokes was no less sensational than Ishant vs Ponting or Wahab vs Watson. It was the first time India were defending a score in the tournament, having chased successfully for four games.
Shami worked Stokes over for nine balls and then clattered his stumps with the tenth. In a five-over spell of play where Bumrah and Shami picked up 4 for 9, they made England play 14 false shots. Even on the 16 occasions England middled the ball, they managed just eight runs. That's way too much pressure to contend with, and England crumbled. Shami finished with a four-for, but Bumrah's three wickets were no less important.
Bumrah has made an impact across phases. With the new ball, it has largely been seam and hard length that has proved to be the opponents' undoing. His powerplay economy of 3.13 is the best in the tournament for any bowler to have bowled at least 60 balls in that phase. Teams have looked to play him out, because of the inherent fear of giving their wickets away. It has made for compelling viewing.
The difference between Bumrah's overall economy and the others' economy in this World Cup is the highest for any bowler to have sent down at least 400 balls in any World Cup. If you slightly bring the cut-off down to 300 balls, only Mitchell Starc (2015) is ahead of him. It's the kind of cutting edge attacks yearn for, allowing other bowlers to thrive.
Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja certainly have. Sure, they have had their off days at times, but seldom have they had it together like Kuldeep and Yuzvendra Chahal did against England in 2019.
India have been unchanged for six games now. Shami has picked up three five-fors already, the most in a single edition. Despite playing just six games, he sits atop the bowling charts, having taken 23 wickets at a mind-boggling average of 9.13.

The comeback stories

When he injured his hamstring in Lucknow during the IPL in May, Rahul had feared for the worst. But he was declared fit in August. He still needed some more conditioning that forced him to miss the initial set of games at the Asia Cup. It was deemed highly risky to punt on a player who had to bat and keep wickets, heading into the World Cup with barely any match time.
Iyer, too, had to go to the UK for back surgery; he was pretty much out of action for six weeks. He spent time in rehab but pulled up stiff after being included in the Asia Cup. For a while, it appeared inconceivable to see the team risk both Iyer and Rahul in the same XI. But just when it seemed like Rahul might be given more time out, he had to start playing.
When Iyer had back spasms just prior to the toss in a Super Four Asia Cup fixture against Pakistan, Rahul was in. From knowing he wasn't playing prior to the game - he hadn't even carried his kit to the ground - he ended it by scoring a match-winning hundred and put together a mammoth stand with Kohli.
Iyer eventually won his place back along with Rahul, but began the World Cup with a tame dismissal that elicited a public cry of anguish from India's 2011 hero, Yuvraj Singh. He needs to be more responsible, Yuvraj said. And responsible Iyer has been since.
After a slow start, he has gathered pace to make four consecutive scores of 75 or more. This includes the centuries against Netherlands and then against New Zealand in the semi-final. There's an air of audacity to Iyer's game against spin, tempered aggression that stems from the confidence he has in his abilities, short-ball frailties notwithstanding.
Then there's Gill, who had missed the first two matches of the World Cup because of a bout of dengue, leaving India having to summon Plan B - Ishan Kishan - straightaway. Fortunately for India, Gill missed only two games.
While the after-effects of his illness haven't gone yet, he has been a calming presence in the top order. Gill is the only one in India's top five to not have a hundred to show yet, but each of his four half-centuries had the hundred stamp all over it. Two nights back, in the semi-final, he made 79 before having to retire hurt with cramps. By the time he returned to bat in the last over, Kohli and Iyer had hit hundreds of their own, and Gill wasn't ruing what he had missed.
As India prepare for the final, it all seems a script straight out of a dream. Gill loves batting there, having hit three hundreds across formats this year. And one of those was against the very team he will face on Sunday.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo