Timid… fear of risks? What ails Team India in ICC knockout matches
Since 2013, India have lost 5 finals, incurred 4 semi-final exits and one forgettable group-stage knockout, across four ICC events
Peter Brand: Billy, we just won twenty games in a row.
Billy Beane: And what's the point?
Peter Brand: We just got the record.
Billy Beane: Man, I've been doing this for... I'm not in it for a record, I'm not in it for a ring. That's when people get hurt. If we don't win the last game of the Series, they'll dismiss us.
You surely do remember this conversation, don't you? That's an excerpt from Brad Pitt-starrer Moneyball. And it couldn't have, more perfectly, put together the brutality of sports as a whole. In fact, a dialogue in Bollywood classic '3 Idiots' had referred to something similar where the college director Viru Sahastrabudhhe said: "Who was the first man to step on the moon. Neil Armstrong, obviously. We all know that, but who was the second man? Don't waste your time. It's not important. Nobody ever remembers the man who came second."
India's streak, their dominance, the in-form players, and their bid for the ultimate record was all one could hear about as the World Cup built towards the summit clash against Australia. In fact, even some of the Aussie players even smiled sheepishly when directly asked the question on how they were going to beat India, right after their semifinal win. Steve Smith had notably steered away with a response of: "That's a good question" before laughing it off.
This Rohit Sharma's Indian side was perhaps the best the World Cup has ever witnessed, with comparisons drawn with the 2003 Australian team under Ricky Ponting. They are fitter and far better prepared for any given situation. They have a once in a generation bowler, and another who attained 'legendary' status after coming off the bench simply because there wasn't a place for him in the XI in the first four matches. They have an army of highly-skilled batters with one on a record-breaking spree and another possessing the ability to make a mockery of any bowling attack. And still, they were 10-1 in the World Cup.
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More than one lakh home fans had flocked to the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on Sunday, their sole wish being to see Rohit and his men emulating India's 1983 and 2011 feats. It was an ocean of blue. But they were sent into a funereal silence by Australia. Later, only a few hundred stayed back to watch Glenn Maxwell's winning run and a handful more during the presentation ceremony. Even the Indian team did not stay back to witness Pat Cummins and his boys lifting the trophy. Despite their records through the tournament, on the night that mattered the most, India were the second-best team. And they will have to contend with the harsh reality.
With the loss, India's wait continues. June 23 of 2013. That was the last time India laid their hands on an ICC trophy. Since then, India have lost five finals, incurred four semi-final exits and one forgettable group-stage knockout, across four ICC events, being the ODI World Cup, Champions Trophy, T20 World Cup and the World Test Championship.
Where do India go wrong in ICC knockouts?
When India had reached the semis of the 2023 World Cup last week, after going 9-0 in the preliminary stage, West Indies legend Vivian Richards had a small piece of advice for them. In the wake of the circulating stat on India's record in the knockout stages of an ICC event since 2013, the 1979 World Cup winner said: "...if I was in that dressing room – let’s go out with all guns blazing. That approach has worked so far and if that changes, things may go astray."
And Richards was right. If it wasn't for Rohit's aggressive starts, which perfectly set the tone for India as far as batting was concerned, and the likes of Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul taking over the role with Virat Kohli holding one fort, the team probably wouldn't have gone unbeaten for sure. And that is where they lacked Sunday evening. Rohit got the start with his 31-ball 47, even as India lost Shubman Gill in the fifth over for just 4 runs. But then… who next? With the team losing their captain and Iyer, who hit back-to-back tons in the lead up to the final, in a space of just four balls, Kohli and Rahul were their last batting hopes. Yes, in those tricky early evening conditions, it was difficult to manoeuvre the ball around even for a single and there wasn't much batting left for India beyond them. But couldn't they have pushed a tad bit harder, even against the likes of Travis Head, Mitchell Marsh and Glenn Maxwell who conceded just 49 runs between themselves in 60 balls for a wicket? They managed just one boundary in their 18.3 overs of partnership.
India overall hit just four boundaries in the last 40 overs. The word 'timid' seems to slip back yet again to describe India's batting. In fact, it was the exact words that former England captain Nasser Hussain had used to show the reason behind India not being able to win major ICC tournaments since 2013.
"India's issues have been ICC events really. They have been going around beating everyone, with a variety of players, they have rotated and rested. But the truth is that they have played some timid cricket in world events, like almost gone into their shell. They definitely played some fearful cricket in the last World Cup, especially in the Powerplays," Hussain had said on Sky Cricket back in October 2022, although hoping that team could change their fortunes under Rohit and with in-form Suryakumar Yadav as the finisher in the 2022 T20 World Cup.
In the end, it was the conservative approach yet again that killed a billion Indian hopes. It was largely evident from the contrasting powerplays India and England played in the semifinal. India managed 38/1 against the new ball while Jos Buttler's side smashed 63/0 as England chased down 169 with four overs to spare.
The reason stood similar with Yuvraj Singh's cagey knock in the 2014 World T20 final against Sri Lanka which resulted in the lowest first-innings total in a final, and in the 2016 semi-final where India weren't hell-bent on getting boundaries in a batting-friendly Wankhede track as opposed to West Indies who were all about sheer power.
'Timid' has been a new word for Team India...
It hasn't always been a defensive mindset behind India's downfall. The 2019 World Cup semifinal loss against New Zealand could be put down to reckless hitting from Hardik Pandya and Rishabh Pant after setting themselves up or India's frailty of an untested middle-order being exposed in the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan or not getting the right partnership in the semifinal against Australia in a bid to complete the highest successful chase in 2015 World Cup.
What can India do to win an ICC trophy?
The answer can be simplified into two parts. One, get a team as strong as their 2023 World Cup squad. This was indeed their best ever chance to break the duck, but fate had harsh plans. Two, they got to take that risk in matches that matter the most. There is always a flip side to it. But for that trophy that has eluded them for so, so long, they have to take that plunge.
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