After nine matches, one would think that the semi-finalists are clear on the identity of the eleven players who will step out for the knockout games. And yet, that is not really true. Australia has lost three members of its squad over the past few days and is likely to find itself picking two replacements for the semifinal. New Zealand’s iffy form means it has a far from settled batting unit while England probably found its best eleven only at the conclusion of the round-robin stage.
It is a problem that is not unfamiliar to India. The team has already lost Shikhar Dhawan and Vijay Shankar to injuries while its middle order is yet to shake off its wobbly ways, an issue that was identified months ago. One may find Ravindra Jadeja suddenly becoming important to the playing eleven after just one game, as he can beef up the lower order, while the role of Dinesh Karthik remains unclear till this point. Moreover, after preparing to play the World Cup with two wrist spinners for a couple of years, skipper Virat Kohli finds himself deciding which one to select.
Uncertainty in team management was perhaps bound to be an issue in a long tournament, but a side would still prefer to minimise its headaches as the business end approaches. One introduction has helped India on that count. Although Rishabh Pant is yet to set the World Cup on fire, his presence addresses a serious concern with the Indian batting line-up--the question of heft and power hitting.
Before Pant walked into the team, nobody but Hardik Pandya could provide the acceleration that is the bedrock of any successful batting effort in ODIs. India found it difficult to make the most of the second half of its innings, a task that was made particularly worrisome by the ill-suited approach of Kedar Jadhav and Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s waning powers. But with Pant in the team, the Indian side is well-accustomed to capitalise on the strong starts that Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, and KL Rahul have been able to provide.
It is an ironic turnaround for Pant. The 21-year-old wicketkeeper was dropped from the World Cup squad because he was not considered reliable enough in crunch situations. But now that India prepares for the semifinal against New Zealand on Tuesday in Manchester, Pant is one of the players certain to start the game. Doubts over his suspect glove work and rash temperament have receded to reveal a player who can make the difference between victory and defeat.
Even as Pant cements a place in the side for his ability to contribute swashbuckling efforts with the bat, another player wonders whether his multiple gifts will be deemed sufficient for an inclusion. Ravindra Jadeja has endured a strange year. He was firmly out of favour with the ODI side twelve months ago before forcing his way into the team through some impressive bowling displays at the Asia Cup.
It seemed for a while that he would be a core member for India this summer, notwithstanding Kohli and the team management’s predilection for two wrist spinners. The assumption was informed by an extended tail that left India short in the batting department; Jadeja’s run-making potential was seen as a gift. In fact, the all-rounder’s value was proven beyond doubt days before the World Cup when he produced a half-century in an otherwise dismal performance by India as the side lost its warm-up game to New Zealand.
However, Jadeja remained conspicuous by his absence until India played Sri Lanka on Saturday – before the match, the only time he made news was for a spat with ex-cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar who had endorsed his exclusion. The team management seemed to hold the same view as Manjrekar since the all-rounder was not handed a chance to prove his mettle until the team confirmed its spot in the semifinals. Jadeja, however, did not disappoint, finishing his quota of overs with characteristic parsimony. The 30-year-old certainly did not hurt his chances of featuring again in the tournament.
The question remains, however, whether Kohli will return to the familiar as the knockouts arrive. In Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, he has two aggressive wicket-taking options, but the former at least has not touched the heights expected of him. Although Kohli has emphasised flexibility in team selection —to be fair, it has served a highly adaptable side very well— the team composition under his leadership has always carried an air of unpredictability.
However India chooses to approach the semifinal against the Kiwis, the toss could prove to be decisive. All matches at Old Trafford have been won by the team batting first and it is a decision both sides would like to make. India has chased thrice in this tournament and won two of those matches, against South Africa and Sri Lanka. But the Men in Blue would certainly not want to be in a situation where they have to seek a target in the vicinity of 300. It can prove to be a treacherous chase, as it happened four years ago when an in-form India ended up well short in its pursuit of 329 against the Australians at the semifinal stage. Skipper Kohli and six others who were part of the squad for that encounter will be keen to avoid a repeat.
Priyansh is a writer in New Delhi. He tweets @Privaricate