MS Dhoni is generally the most active member of the team during practice sessions. If he isn’t padded up and spending a good hour or so batting, he’ll have the ball in his hand bowling medium-pace. Then he might even turn to bowling his version of off-spin. On Saturday at the Oval, he was his busy self, but for a change, he wasn’t batting or bowling. He was instead busy playing mentor to the rest of the team.
It incidentally started with coach Anil Kumble, the two indulging in a lengthy and animated chat. The former India captain then stood outside the spinners’ nets encouraging Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin and slipping in a few words of advice on and off. Dhoni then walked across to the fast bowlers, had a few words with Umesh Yadav about the length he was bowling before spending the next 15 minutes with Rohit Sharma, where he seemed to do most of the talking and Sharma the nodding. Dhoni is no stranger to high-octane knockout matches. For, that matter, nor are most in this Indian team with a majority of them having played in the last World Cup. The others have at some point faced the pressure of an IPL final too. But not since the shock 2007 World Cup exit has an Indian team faced the prospect of an embarrassing premature elimination from a 50-over world event that they entered as firm favourites.
After a dreary start, both in terms of weather and on-field action, the Champions Trophy has just sprung to life. The sun too has finally come out for the first time this summer. But if the weather remains the same, one of the two pre-tournament favourites, the No.1 ranked team in the world and the defending champions, will be knocked out on Sunday night. Though you couldn’t call it nervous energy, there was a discernible sense of anxious energy in the way the two teams went about their routines on the eve of the unexpected “quarterfinal”.
Throughout the period Dhoni was seemingly calming nerves around the Indian camp, Virat Kohli was hopping from net to net in a relatively longer batting session than usual. And he wasn’t looking at his best. Jasprit Bumrah seemed to have the wood on him and beat him repeatedly, and so did throwdown specialist Raghu. It was the spinners who seemed to cause the Indian captain most distress. In Kohli’s defence, he did have to contend with an unusual spot on a length from where many balls, including a few from Yuvraj Singh, sprang on him, one nearly hitting him on the helmet.
At one point, Kohli tried to nurdle a ball towards virtual third-man off Jadeja but got his footwork in a horrible mess and burst out laughing. He then returned to face the fast bowlers one more time, and kind of started middling the ball better. Shikhar Dhawan, who has had a history of being dismissed by short-pitched deliveries by South African pacers, was given a long workout against the short-ball with Sanjay Bangar first and then his opening partner spearing full-tosses towards his head.
With the likes of Kagiso Rabada, Chris Morris and Morne Morkel, South Africa have just the attack to test the Indians on a hard Oval pitch, which if nothing will offer them bounce. That the Proteas have a batting line-up filled with those with a penchant for horizontal shots to target the square fields, the Indian bowlers’ length too will be tested consequently.
But with their reputations on the line and the knowledge that a defeat would result in drastic reactions back home, Sunday’s match will not be so much about lines and lengths as it will be about towing their clichéd line, “just treat it as another game”.Neither captain, though, shied away from admitting that it’ll be easier said than done and that both teams will have to guard against a number of factors that could potentially derail their cause. According to Kohli, the key was to not get “overexcited” and find a good balance between being “competitive and being passionate”. Keeping the “composure” is another factor that Kohli reiterated. “I think the team that treats the game as normal as possible is the team that’s in a better position to get the right result. A lot of times, teams come in and they want to do something special and end up messing up the game in important situations,” he said.
It’s generally the other ‘c’ word, no not calmness either, that generally gets associated with South Africa in these scenarios but it is rare for them to face this predicament in the league stages, where they generally are at their best. Though Kohli wasn’t referring to them directly, he probably gave his opponents a hint of what goes wrong with them in do-or-die matches.
“You tend to get overexcited, and then you commit errors that can cost the team important runs, or if you fail to grab all the chances because you’re overexcited and that can cost the team, as well. I think composure will be the biggest word for tomorrow,” he said.
Incidentally, South African captain AB de Villiers, who’s in the midst of an unusually long run-drought and is yet to get going in England, echoed Kohli’s views about not getting overexcited. “The tendency will be there because we all live for these kinds of moments. That’s why we play cricket, we want to play on the big stage against the big teams and tomorrow is one of those games,” he said.
De Villiers then mentioned his recipe for success, “a relaxed mind-set” before insisting that the onus would be on him to lead from the front in that regard. “I think that’s really important to remember we are playing a game of cricket, something that we love doing, and to get that smile on our faces out there,” he said. But both he and Kohli will know that there will only be one team that’ll be left smiling at the Oval on Sunday.