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India vs South Africa: A World Cup final dress rehearsal | Cricket


India vs South Africa: A World Cup final dress rehearsal | Cricket


The business end of a World Cup can be a tricky time once the semi-final is guaranteed. But there can be no let-up in resolve, not when India are presented with a delicious possibility of carrying through momentum and confidence from Eden Gardens.

Ravindra Jadeja (L) and Virat Kohli during a practice session at Eden Gardens in Kolkata(Samir Jana/HT)
Ravindra Jadeja (L) and Virat Kohli during a practice session at Eden Gardens in Kolkata(Samir Jana/HT)

India are two wins away from a perfect run into the knockouts. And since they have been there in 2019 but not done that — it was 7-1 in the league phase, the only loss coming against England — India would like to tick that box. Bragging rights isn’t the biggest peg to this match. And so transient are the highs and lows in white-ball cricket that the repercussions of Sunday’s blockbuster are not expected to influence India’s knockouts destiny. But this surely has shaped up to be a dress rehearsal of the real deal.

Temba Bavuma summed up what is at stake for India and South Africa on Sunday. “You got two teams who are in form coming up against each other. I think it’s just a matter of who breaks first and who’s able to, I guess, exploit that moment or that weakness,” said the South Africa captain on Saturday. “We understand that there will be pressure moments within the World Cup, moments that we’ve overcome to get to this point, and there will still be more. We’ll deal with them as best as we can.”

Two evenly matched teams with talented batters who aren’t alike, incisive pacers and gritty spinners, are lining up on a surface that hasn’t produced a score higher than 229 in four innings. Dew makes the ball zip through the lush outfield, but under lights it is an unpredictable pitch that is bound to test the limits of batters.

“I have given up on dew,” said India coach Rahul Dravid when asked if it was one of the more difficult pitches to read. “I can never predict it. Neither can groundsmen, man. Half the time they’re telling me something, and then it’s not. But I think the beauty of this tournament is that it has shown that if you bat first and put good scores on the board, dew hasn’t been as much of a factor. The results haven’t been as skewed as a lot of people thought leading into this tournament.”

From a statistical point of view, batting first at Eden Gardens has worked better for India. Eight of their 13 wins here have come after setting the target. First use of the pitch too is when Rohit Sharma — easily the most prolific white-ball batter here — is at his destructive best. India need that, as well as Virat Kohli’s measured approach and some middle-order punch to overcome a South African batting line-up that believes in slow starts and gradual acceleration. Given a choice, SA too would want to bat first. That’s how they have scored 428/5, 311/7, 399/7, 382/5 and 357/4 in this World Cup.

That turns the focus to batting under lights here. And since India are fresh off a win where their fast bowlers unleashed mayhem on a Wankhede pitch that aids stroke-making, South Africa are guarded. “You really got to be on your A game with that new ball,” Bavuma said when asked about India’s bowling. “I mean, you don’t get a lot of bad balls. The three up front, Bumrah, Siraj as well as Shami are guys who can exploit anything with that new ball. If there’s swing, if there’s nip, they can exploit that. Then they’ve got their spinners in the middle who really hold the game, in (Kuldeep) Yadav as well as (Ravindra) Jadeja. Yadav has that ability to take wickets. I think the way we’ve played spin has been good. There will be a big expectation for us to do that.”

Walking this talk could be difficult though. In Yadav, India have finally hit a jackpot of variation that is always channeled within the stumps and at a pace that batters can’t get under. Equally chastening can be the experience of playing Jadeja, who is averaging 3.78 runs per over in this World Cup. “Just the kind of control that he’s given us through the middle has been sensational,” said Dravid. “Every metric point tells us that he’s up there with anyone in this tournament in terms of just the areas he’s been able to hit, the speeds he’s been able to bowl at. There’s a lot of good conversations around the group in our bowlers’ meetings with him.”

Only time will tell if it was posturing or aggression, but Bavuma didn’t make any bones about exploiting India’s sixth bowler with Hardik Pandya ruled out of the World Cup. “They only have five bowlers, so they can, I guess, be put under pressure if one of them is not on his day. But you’ve got to probably respect their bowling attack a little bit more than the other bowling attacks. And understand that you’re going to have to play good cricket for longer periods.”


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