The cascading effect of the middle overs cacophony

The Kohli-Rahul stand went on for fairly long - 109 balls to be exact - but they scored only 67 runs between them in this time
The Kohli-Rahul stand went on for fairly long - 109 balls to be exact - but they scored only 67 runs between them in this time ©AFP

It was the end of the 30th over of Australia's chase when Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli found themselves locked in a mid-pitch three-way conversation. All around them, their teammates had already slunked to their fielding positions for the next over and Ravindra Jadeja had handed his cap to the umpire even as this chat prolonged. The Australian batters, Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne, waited for a bit and saw a window to sneak in one of those out-of-schedule hydration breaks.

Eventually, the three senior players wandered off into a patch of green space, each staring into the distance trying to come to terms with an unpalatable truth. They'd played all their cards, including those second spells for Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. The World Cup dream was just not meant to be. Misery loves company and the Indian team had a whopping majority of the 92,453 people in attendance sharing their grief.

That was not even the first time in the evening when it felt like the air had whooshed out of the stadium, leaving behind a weird, uncomfortable energy. At an almost identical point in the Indian innings, Kohli stood transfixed while the LED stumps behind him stood illuminated. There was something disjointed about the way he waited, glancing once at the pitch and then once at his batting partner. It was a good 15 seconds after Kohli had dragged Pat Cummins delivery back onto his stumps that he began to drag himself off the field.

It was a picture of sporting desolation. Because Kohli was expected to bat through after making 50 or more for a ninth time in 11 games. That was his role in India's well-defined setup. He drops anchor and bats deep while others around him make the faster runs. Rohit made 47 off 31 today but fell in the final over of the PowerPlay. But India still had 80/2, a sensational start on a slow pitch with even Kohli making rapid ground hitting three successive fours of Mitchell Starc.

India had started very well and stayed true to their aggressive batting blueprint. This preternatural form of play at one point in the World Cup had turned worrisome, with the fear that they would trip when they absolutely could not afford to. On Sunday the Indian team didn't trip, they ran into a yellow wall that they knew they couldn't leap over or smash through.

When Shreyas Iyer was dismissed two balls after the PowerPlay, India were forced into a period of consolidation despite going at eight-runs-an-over at that stage. In order to post a competitive score, they needed Kohli and Rahul to work in clockwork sync and bat long, quite like they had done in Chennai. What turned up instead was a slightly out-of tune orchestra.

They batted fairly long - 109 balls to be exact - and scored 67 runs between them in this time. The challenge for India when the pair got together was that they had almost 40 overs left in the innings while Australia needed three wicket-taking balls to drag Shami into the middle. And so Kohli and Rahul batted on, slowly at the start, steadily thereafter. Against outstanding Australian bowlers, who didn't leave the stumps and brought out the worst of the slow surface by bowling straight lines and banging the ball on a hard length. There were no easy boundaries available. Especially not with Australia's fielding matching the relentlessness of their bowling. The partnership's only boundary, a lapped four off Maxwell by Rahul, came in the 98th ball. Only one more four was scored before the 40th over, the joint-fewest boundaries in that 11-40 over phase of a men's World Cup innings.

It was a good 15 seconds after Kohli had dragged Pat Cummins delivery back onto his stumps that he began to drag himself off the field
It was a good 15 seconds after Kohli had dragged Pat Cummins delivery back onto his stumps that he began to drag himself off the field ©Getty

There's a reason why India have enjoyed the Iyer-Kohli pairing through the middle. Iyer scores faster and takes more chances against spin, allowing Kohli to not worry about the run-rate and ease into a hundred and potentially tee-off at the end. That pair totalled 542 partnership runs - more than anyone else in the tournament - at an average of 67.67 and a scoring rate of 5.62. It's impossible to know if Iyer would have allowed Mitchell Marsh or either of the spinners too many boundary-free deliveries, but he is likely to have taken the odd risk to transfer the pressure. On the other side, of the 15 pairs with 300+ partnership runs in this World Cup, Kohli and Rahul had the lowest scoring rate (4.75) at the World Cup.

An argument can be had about Rahul needing to have been braver and taken a risk or two. It is what his captain might have wanted after a certain period of consolidation. But Rahul's watchful disposition (he made 66 off 107) here, though, was not without reason, the major being a lack of depth in the batting. When Kohli was eventually undone by an alliance of Cummins and the pitch, there were as many as 22 overs still left for India to bat. It was perhaps the first sign of them missing Hardik Pandya in this competition. Because Suryakumar Yadav was given a role to finish off innings, Ravindra Jadeja was promoted to No.6 - one slot too high for him.

In light of the pitch, India's first curious decision was to look to bat first should they win the toss; they got what they wanted, as Rohit said at the toss, though Australia won the right to decide and promptly put them in. Rahul and Kohli are two batters of great skill but they weren't the best pair to push India's boundary percentage of 9.5 in the middle overs, one that was higher than only Afghanistan, Netherlands and Bangladesh in this setup. Chennai was different even after 2/3 because they batted with a [modest] target pinned to their wall.

Between overs 11-40, India scored 117/3 at a run-rate of 3.90 as opposed to their mid-overs scoring rate of 5.72 in the tournament. They had been made to veer away from plans by an excellent opposition. Additionally, as Rahul Dravid lamented, every time a partnership seemed to have put India in enough of a control for them to up the ante from, they lost a wicket, leading to loss of momentum and necessitating another period of consolidation given the long tail to follow. Eventually, India were left at least 40-50 short of what might have been a good score on a surface that played substantially better in the second innings.

In the end, after a year of striving to change the mindset of the batters - and Rohit being at the forefront of the change, the team management will be disappointed their exit came while being forced to play with the handbrake on and the keys of the car chucked out. Rahul played very few forceful shots, and Kohli didn't attack spin. Did they try enough to fight the conditions? Or were the opposition just too good on the day?

The larger question perhaps is whether the laudable batting approach is sustainable in a seven-batter ODI setup? It certainly is, but even in a team of incredible batting talent, such a line-up is prone to suffer on the odd day. For India, that day just happened to be today. One defeat doesn't make them a bad team. But that one defeat doesn't make them World Champions either.



Move to top