This article was first published on Thirdmancricket.com
A Different Kind of Seven Hour Journey
Number 1 in the world vs. Number 2 in the world. That’s what it has come down to at that most hallowed of cricket grounds, the Sydney Cricket Ground. Dhoni’s Men in Blue vs. Clarke’s Green and Gold Brigade. Kohli vs. Smith, Faulkner vs. Jadeja, Australia’s seamers vs. India’s spinners. Call it what you want, this is going to be the most anticipated clash of this tournament yet.
January 6, 2008. That day is still etched in memory. It was the second test match of the Border Gavaskar series. The match was petering out to a tepid draw, when Saurav Ganguly edged a ball to third slip where Australian captain Ricky Ponting was fielding. Ponting claimed the catch and Ganguly was given out in dramatic circumstances, as replays showed the ball clearly touched the ground before Ponting caught it. Ponting lied.
What followed was a procession of wickets in which decision after decision was questionable to say the least, and downright cheating if you ask most. Michael Clarke bowled the last over taking three wickets to win Australia the match who took an unassailable 2-0 lead and retained the Border Gavaskar trophy.
I love this sport more than anyone I know. I am as patriotic about my country as anyone I know. I love the Indian cricket team as much as anyone I know. Sometimes my emotions overtake logic, but if it wasn’t so, then I wouldn’t be a true sports fan, would I?
It hurts me every time someone calls India a flat track bully. It hurts me every time people say India is a team that can’t win overseas. It hurts me when cricket fans claim the BCCI buys its way through tournaments. It hurts me when cricket lovers look down upon India’s new found might in the cricketing world.
It hurts me because I’m Indian and I’m proud of what this team has achieved over the course of the last two decades. Cricket never used to be a sport of the masses in India. It now is. Dhoni and his boys aren’t from privileged backgrounds. These guys practiced day in day out with little or no equipment to get to where they are today.
They didn’t have any comfy Saturday morning drop-offs by their parents to their local club game. They travelled three hours each way by bus and train to get to practice, practiced for hours on end, only to head over to play a six-hour game and then make the same trek back home. This is a hardened group of individuals.
And while the Australians may talk the tough talk, what with Mitchell Johnson talking about “giving it to the Indians tomorrow”, and Steve Smith saying India will carry “a few scars with them from matches throughout the summer”, the Indians will pay no heed to that.
MS Dhoni looks firmly in the zone when playing one day cricket, particularly in big tournaments. He’s maintained that this same hardened group of cricketers was well prepared for the World Cup, as it’s the same group that was able to get across the line in the Champions Trophy in England in 2013, and reached the final of the World T20 in Bangladesh in 2014.
And so to the SCG we go. India hasn’t played at the SCG since the test match here in January. The wicket is expected to turn, as seen in the Sri Lanka v South Africa quarterfinal here last week, although tempered by some rain in Sydney over the last couple of days, which should freshen up the wicket a little bit.
The Australian players, particularly David Warner and Aaron Finch, have been gunning for some grass on the wicket and more Australian supporters in the stands. I’m afraid they’re unlikely to get either of their wishes. The ICC handles the pitches for the World Cup and doesn’t let the “home side” prepare favorable conditions as is the norm in bilateral tours. As far as home support goes, this is expected to be a sellout crowd, with a 4:1 ratio of Indian:Australian supporters, and so it will feel more like a home game for Dhoni and the boys than Clarke’s Aussies.
The team that wins the toss will most likely bat first. The wicket is likely to get slower as the day goes on, which would benefit India’s spinners greatly, particularly with Ashwin and Jadeja peaking at the right time in this tournament.
Mark my words; this is going to be a big game for that man Ravi Jadeja. People who read my posts on social media will know that I am a huge supporter of Jadeja. The reason I like him so much is because he has that spunk that you need in a match winner. He has that rare ability to turn the face of a game within a few overs, with the bat, ball or in the field. He hasn’t had the greatest World Cup yet, but in my opinion he is the best fielder in the world, can be devastating with the bat in the death overs, and can switch between being a containing and an attacking spinner, a rare ability in today’s day and age where spinners are expected to focus on containment rather than picking up wickets.
Virat Kohli has had a fairly tame tournament by his standards since the Pakistan game. He seems to rise to the big occasion and I wouldn’t put it past him scoring a top class hundred tomorrow. The rest of the Indian batting looks in top shape, and it’s a question of seeing off Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood, and then consolidating on a steady start to accelerate towards a 300 total (assuming India bats first).
With 300 on the board, India will be confident given the form its bowlers have been in, bowling out all 7 teams they’ve played against. However, Australia’s batting is in pretty good form, and the two to watch out for would be Steve Smith and Glen “The Big Show” Maxwell; Smith for his ability to play the big innings, and Maxwell for his ability to consolidate a good start to reach an unassailable total.
Maxwell could be the difference between a total of 300 and 350 if Australia bat first. That is why India have to be at their best in terms of field setting, fielding, and their line and lengths. Yadav, Shami (in particular) and Mohit Sharma have been in red hot form this World Cup, and I expect them to continue to put in their best, albeit with a little more resistance from the likes of Warner and Smith.
India should definitely continue to employ the short ball against the Australians. Wahab Riaz worked out Clarke and Watson beautifully in the quarterfinal, and it wouldn’t hurt the Indians to try the same method against the Aussie batsmen. Additionally, Dhoni should be mindful of setting his inner circle fielders at the edge of the circle against the likes of Warner and Finch, who aren’t the type to play with soft hands and take quick singles. Placing your fielders at the edge of the circle gives you a much better chance of cutting down the boundaries in the first PowerPlay, and allows you to build pressure as the fielding captain. Australia thrives on momentum from its openers, and cutting down their scoring opportunities will help India a long way toward containing the Aussies.
All in all, it promises to be a contest for the ages. India will be confident following its seven wins in a row. The Aussies will be confident being on home soil. But for my money (literally), it’s India’s day tomorrow at the SCG. India is the form side, it is the best fielding side in the world, has the smartest captain in world cricket, and a “home” crowd that will be backing its players all the way. Who wants it more? The boys in blue who took those three hour bus and train rides to their 7am practice, and not those boys in green and gold who were dropped off with their kit in tow by their parents. It’s payback time for January 6th, 2008.
Watch out for that man Ravi Jadeja. Man of the Match performance on the way.
Nikhil is an author and contributor for Third Man Cricket.