Putting behind the turbulent phase of the past few weeks,a red-hot India are standing on the cusp of winning their second straight world title as they take on hosts England in the summit showdown of the ICC Champions Trophy on Sunday.
The reigning World Cup winners roared into the title clash of what will be the last edition of the tournament,winning all their four matches with consummate ease under the astute leadership of captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
In a contest where the exuberance of youth will lock horns with the fineness of tradition,the ‘Three Lions’ on the other hand will be gunning for their first major 50-over international title in their own lair.
Joint winners with Sri Lanka in the 2002 Champions Trophy in Colombo,India are the defending World Cup champions and the No. 1 team on the latest ICC rankings.
But reputation and numbers will have little significance in a match,where skill and mental toughness face an acid test at the Edgbagston.
England,who have lost in the finals of both the World Cup and the Champions Trophy over the past two decades,will aim to exploit home conditions against a new breed of carefree Indian cricketers who have taken the tournament by storm.
While India have breezed through to the final,England have shown their die-hard character by lifting themselves several notches in key matches.
The hosts thrashed South Africa by seven wickets in the tournament’s first semifinal at The Oval on Wednesday but more than the margin of victory,the team’s ability to bowl out a decent batting line-up in less than 39 overs would have given the English bowlers a big shot in the arm.
India’s batting has been in ominous form. Except for the tournament opener against South Africa on June 6,India have never batted beyond No. 4.
India’s opening pair of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma has prospered in every game,but it is not their run-making that has impressed the purists. The temperament to treat the good deliveries with respect and play out the first 10-12 overs without any overdose of adventurism has stood India in good stead.
On the flip side,India’s middle order remains untested. But that should not be a worry because there is plenty of experience with Suresh Raina at No. 5 and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni at No. 6.
As far as bowling is concerned,the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar,Ishant Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja have been admirable in unfamiliar but helpful conditions. Umesh Yadav and Ravichandran Ashin,too,have been instrumental in swinging the momentum India’s way on a few occasions.
The Indians continue to be a relaxed bunch. After brushing aside Sri Lanka by eight wickets in Cardiff on Thursday,it was an off day after the players drove down to Birmingham yesterday afternoon.
The month of June has always been special for Indian cricket in England. Never having lost to England in two Champions Trophy matches before,a victory at Edgbaston will be the perfect way to compliment the 30th anniversary of India’s first World Cup at Lord’s on June 25.
While India have relied on the dashing Dhawan,the left-hander has scored a tournament high of 332 runs in four innings with back-to-back centuries,England continue to tow the traditional batting path,where grammar gains precedence over flamboyance.
The hosts’ top order has been quite prolific with the workmanlike Jonathan Trott providing a calming influence at No. 3. The South African-born batsman is the third highest scorer in this Champions Trophy and will aim to play a ‘special’ knock at Edgbaston,home to his County side,Warwickshire.
Trott said England have “proved a few people wrong” by reaching their second Champions Trophy final after 2004. The most recent major final England played in was the 2010 World Twenty20 in Barbados where they beat Australia to claim their only major ICC trophy.
The Champions Trophy final is also ‘special’ for skipper Alastair Cook. He is leading England for the first time in a global event and is just a win away from a landmark victory.
“It would be a massive achievement and it’s very hard to do. It’s taken a long time to get to the finals. We got to the finals in 2004 and couldn’t quite get over the line. I hope this time we can get one better,” said Cook.
“I think everyone loves this tournament,the fact that every game has meant so much. Every game has been against high quality opposition,and you’ve had to be on your A-game to win it. To be through with the quality opposition we’ve played,I think that’s a good achievement and hopefully it won’t stop there,” Cook said after the semifinal win against South Africa.
England’s biggest strength is their pace attack. The troika of James Anderson,Stuart Broad and Steven Finn are more than a handful in seaming conditions and therefore,the nature of the Edgbaston pitch and the toss will be critical in tomorrow’s final. With rain forecasted over the weekend and conditions likely to stay overcast,the English quickies will fancy their chances.
The ability to take early wickets have been England’s biggest plus in the tournament so far. Anderson,Finn and Broad had reduced South Africa to 50 for four inside 14 overs and then off-spinner James Tredwell spun a web,taking 3 for 19 in a horribly one-sided semifinal.
But England’s bowling attack has also showed its limitations. Lack of a plan B was exposed when Kumar Sangakkara dared to look Anderson and Co. in the eye,stood his ground and demonstrated the audacity to cut,pull and drive with such authority that England’s bowlers virtually ran for cover.
Sangakkara’s unbeaten 134 blew away England by seven
wickets in a group match,but more importantly,it underlined
the fact that the home team pacers were not unplayable even in pitches that afforded seam and bounce.