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By Chetan Narula
When Sachin Tendulkar scores 120 runs in an ODI he usually wins the Man-of-the-Match award. Seldom does it happen that the opposite number comes up with 158 of his own and steals away his thunder. Rarely is a target of 339 hunted down with such ease in 50-overs and hardly ever the fielding side makes a comeback after having been pasted around for 250 for 2 in 37 overs during the chase. The India-England match-up at Bangalore boasted of so many twists and turns that it became hard to keep count, and in turn gave us one of the greatest World Cup matches, if not the greatest.
It began with the second-wicket partnership between Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir, after Virender Sehwag departed having hit more balls in the air than along the ground. While the left-hander brought his aggressive best to the middle, the master had begun earnestly to play a long innings. The English attacked him with two short-cover fielders at times, but he wouldn’t give them a sniff. When the field spread he brought out his own shots and Graeme Swann will not forget those sixes for a long time, never mind the tag of best off-spinner in the world. In fact, India’s aggression towards the spinners brought a certain change in the thought process towards the game.
Almost everyone expected the pitch to turn, not like it did in the warm-up against Australia but turn nevertheless. The hitting Swann and Michael Yardy took suggested only that the Indian prowess against spin was at the fore and that for any devils in the pitch to come out, we would have to wait until the English innings started – when Harbhajan Singh and Piyush Chawla would come on. It didn’t happen, none of it, neither in the first innings nor in the second. Sachin completed his 47th ODI ton, every bit as majestic as the rest of them. Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh got their half-tons, the former slowly getting back to his fluent self and the latter looking good after a long, long time. Given the placidity of the track, there was a bit of danger in losing so many wickets towards the end of the innings, but a score of 338 was supposed to stand even the best of run-chases. And it almost didn’t!
The thing about Andrew Strauss is not that he is a two-time Ashes winning captain or that he is leading perhaps the best ever England side. It is that he is a complete batsman now, nay cricketer, and this has come after he was dropped from their national ODI reckoning in 2006-07. He had even lost much of his Test form but it is these incidents that make or break a player. The ones that stand out are all who have seen these troughs and tided over them, riding into a crest thereafter. And since his comeback in 2008-09, Strauss has ridden good fortune, first as a batsman and now also as captain. The Ashes wins will forever stay sweet in his memory but he will probably never play a better ODI innings in his career again.
High run-chases are improbable mainly because the tempo needs to be maintained throughout the innings. When you are chasing more than 300, you begin with an asking rate of six per over and then it is only climbing all the time. To stay on top of that over after over is perhaps asking too much and hence the probability of such a win reduces drastically even before the first ball of the chase is bowled. But that is where everyone mistook England’s failure to exert themselves against Netherlands in Nagpur as a factor here. They came out with a purpose and, first in Kevin Pietersen and then in Ian Bell, Strauss found enough able partners to tank the Indians to all parts of the ground. It showed in nearly twenty percent of the M Chinnaswamy Stadium being emptied by the 40th over.
The rest stayed in the hope that the Indian bowling would turn it around. Yes they eventually did, but before one comes to that, let it be said that this is not a bowling attack that can win the World Cup. Even so, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will not win it! It is a paradox yes, but the point herein is that bowling attacks alone don’t win such big tournaments. There are a lot of factors riding in – batting strength, crowd support, minor changes in playing conditions (varying from drinks-breaks to power-plays to rain-stoppages) as well as the bowling. Rest assured, India do tick strongly in the first two areas and after that it is anybody’s guess. On this particular night, the third one ticked in too, after Bell received treatment and England took their batting power-play. Of course the bowling will have its days when the pitch will afford more help, just how many such days will decide India’s destiny.
Destiny in this World Cup is pretty much also in the hands of the umpires and their much fabled toy that is the UDRS. What happened with Ian Bell’s dubious LBW decision might be repeated later on or might not be repeated, who knows? The underlying point however being that the matter is open to interpretation. When the batsman is 2.5m ahead of his stumps, yet the ball might hit the middle stump – batsmen have been given out in such circumstances before and they will be in the future – it will depend on the umpire’s call and how he sees it, never mind what the rulebook says. Billy Bowden saw it as not out, some other guy might see it as out. India meanwhile do not have any right to complain for they have never supported the referral system and but for its usage in this tournament, they would have never known that Bell was so close to being given out.
Meanwhile, England did well to maintain the chase and they couldn’t have done more to win the game. You always falter once in such high scoring games and they did, during those five overs when the fielders were back in the 30-yard circle. Alternately that was the one chance for India to come back for singles wouldn’t have come easily and a few dot balls would always increase the onus on taking more risks. It worked out as well as didn’t work out for either – India got the wickets and England got runs despite the hiccups, but both fell short of victory. So, what could have both sides done different?
Maybe England could have delayed the power-play only until the final five overs, never allowing India the breathing space after the break in play. Maybe India could have fielded better in the last two overs, and bowled better through the course of the innings. But that was the crux of this match – both did just about enough to win, neither deserved to lose!
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)