India do the hard yards to hide their soft centre

The tournament favourites are cruising but their middle order could be tested if England set them a stiff target

India v England was meant to be something else. Mainly a sussing-out between the two pre-tournament favourites in anticipation of a real contest later, when something significant - like a World Cup - was on the line. That encounter may yet come about, but for England the moment is here and now. They might still have another shot in a few days but that would be leaving their fate to the mercy of factors beyond their control.
The summer has truly arrived. The sun is glorious, the sales are on, the tan lotion is out, the parks are full of baby strollers and picnickers. Saturday was the hottest day of the season in Birmingham, and at Edgbaston a fresh pitch, bald and brown, is baking in the sun. Another age, another day, this would have been manna to India, but today it's the answer to England's prayers. They have been edgy, antsy and nervy, complaining about their own weather, conditions and former players. They will turn up at the match hoping that there is no deception here, and that the pitch is the kind of belter they have built their batting artillery for.
What of India, then? Their semi-final berth isn't sealed yet, but as the only unbeaten team in the tournament, and with the most games in hand of any side, they can afford a loss or two. Their World Cup campaign has chugged along without catching fire. They have lost one of their opening batsmen, a champion performer in ICC tournaments, and one of their opening bowlers; and their captain and best batsman hasn't hit peak form. But there has been no panic yet. They have been stretched on a couple of occasions, but they have held on quite comfortably in the end.
There has been no swagger, but there has been a quiet confidence in how they have gone about their business. There has been no fixed formula to their success and they have found different ways to win. A tricky, potential banana-skin chase on a lively pitch against South Africa; top-order-driven big first-innings scores against Australia and Pakistan; the composed defence of a small total against Afghanistan; and blowing away West Indies after putting up a modest score. There have been different performers in different matches, and they have won the moments when games have been on the line.
But England, if things go their way, can provide India with the challenge they haven't encountered yet: having to chase a big total. Rarely can a score of over 350 be chased down without big contributions from three or four batsmen; India would have to look beyond Rohit Sharma to pull one off. Put another way, England have the opportunity to expose India's soft centre.
Remarkably, India's strengths have been so enormous as to protect a weak spot that might have sunk other teams. Their top three, runs and impact combined, are perhaps the greatest in the history of Indian cricket. In the list of combined annual batting averages, they feature four times in the top five best years. They are easily the best in the world in the last two years.
But the worry for India is what happens when they have an off day. The last time they managed to score over 300 without a 50-plus score from any one of the top three was in January 2017. And an even more revealing statistic is the fact that only five times since 2017 have India managed to go past 300 without the top three contributing more than 50 per cent of the runs.
In the past two years, India have tried 14 different batsmen for Nos 4-6 - more than any other team apart from Sri Lanka and West Indies - to settle for a combination that appears to be the weakest in their recent history, and certainly their weakest in a World Cup in this century.
It is not Vijay Shankar's fault that he has been thrust into the unfamiliar role of No. 4, a position occupied by Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar in two of the last three World Cups. He is yet to score an ODI half-century in any position, and throughout his brief career for India, he has seemed to be in search of his ideal game.
Kedar Jadhav, a late bloomer, began spunkily, but recurring injuries have meant a stop-start international career, and he has never quite managed to replicate the match-winning performances of his debut series.
Which brings the spotlight to MS Dhoni. Irrespective of what happens here, his ODI career will be remembered for the finishes he engineered. The value he brings to Kohli on the field is apparent. Equally apparent, though, are his recent struggles. Just as almost every India chase during his heyday had Dhoni as the pivot, in recent times - as was evident against Afghanistan and West Indies - he has been part of nearly every Indian deceleration.
The numbers bear this out. On the 37 occasions he has been required to bat more than 25 balls since the last World Cup, his strike rate in the first 25 balls has been 64.75, and only in 12 of those instances has he managed to catch up with the innings run rate. So, let alone propelling the innings ahead in the second half of the innings, in 25 of those 37 cases he scored at a lower rate that the innings run rate.
But he has Kohli's backing. One of the strengths of this Indian team has been how they insulate themselves from the noise outside, and how they assess what their wonderful bowling attack, easily the best in their history - and arguably the best in this World Cup - can defend.
Speaking ahead of the game, Kohli re-emphasised that philosophy. "We're not looking at entertainment out there in the middle," he said when asked about the middle order. "We're not looking at playing cricket which is looking flashy. We want to be calculated. We want to play percentage cricket, because, as I said, the team that handles pressure well is going to win the games that are hanging in the balance."
On Dhoni specifically, he repeated what has been said before. "He knows exactly what he needs to do. I don't think he's ever been a cricketer that's had to be told what exactly he needs to do.
"After the last game, he went into the nets. He worked hard. He put in a performance and got us to a winning total, and we won the game. We're very, very happy and comfortable with where we stand as a team and how the batting is going at the moment."
Practice was optional on Saturday, but Dhoni - with Jadhav and Rishabh Pant, who is yet to play a match, alongside - was in the nets. He batted the longest, and a lot against spinners. One of the shots he practised repeatedly was the sweep, a stroke that he employs rarely. Like most of his strokes, it was his version, played wide of square leg.
England will play two spinners tomorrow. And if India happen to be chasing a big score, the middle overs need to be productive. So far India have played the World Cup at their pace. To win it, though, they must be ready and equipped to match the tempo of their opponents when the occasion demands.
For England, losing is barely an option. For India, it could be the opportunity to find some answers. Can they chase big? And how weak is their weakest link?

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal