Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Men’s ODI WC: Kohli, Rahul rescue act helps India bury ghosts of meltdown with assured knocks

When KL Rahul made his way to join Virat Kohli at the crease, the 32,531 fans at the MA Chidambaram Stadium were super silent, as if it was the school class teacher’s pin-drop silence order being followed to the ‘T’.

Anxiety was written large on the faces of spectators as India’s scoreboard read two for three in two overs in the chase of 200 in their first 2023 World Cup game. The flashback of 5-3 from the 2019 Men’s ODI World Cup semi-final, apart from early collapse in 2017 Champions Trophy final, was brought back into mind when Australia’s new-ball bowlers Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood dismissed Rohit Sharma, Ishan Kishan and Shreyas Iyer for ducks.

It felt the universe was conspiring to make everyone tuning into this game go through the haunting emotions of a batting meltdown and make Sunday’s clash as an addition into their list of you-don’t-want-to-ever remember games of the Indian ODI side. Too much was stacked up against India – first time three out of top four batters fell for ducks and no side had ever won after this crazy start.

But from there, when 200 looked as colossal as Mount Everest, what followed was a script which gave the heat and humidity fighting fans its voice and hope back, its vociferous cheering back to decibel-shattering levels as Virat Kohli and KL Rahul produced a partnership of 165 for the ages, giving India a winning start to their campaign.

Let’s face it: the partnership of Kohli and Rahul was the best-possible hope India had with the bat to recover from an unbelievable early wobble and chase 200. Yes, Hardik Pandya would have contributed, so as Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin.

But Kohli and Rahul were the best batters India had at the crease to calm down the situation, soak in the pressure and then look to score runs. While Kohli’s arrival was marked by a huge roar from fans and the “He’s A Freakin’ Badass” coming out of the badass song from Tamil movie ‘Leo’, Rahul had a rushing entry to the crease.

“Quite honestly, not a lot of conversation. I was just trying to catch my breath as I just had a shower. I thought I would get a good half an hour – (or) an hour’s – break, put the feet up and just rest up. But I was out there in no time, so there was a bit of rush. I was just trying to get my breath back,” Rahul would say this after notching up 97 not out to broadcasters.

The duo had slammed centuries while sharing a 233-run stand against Pakistan in the Asia Cup last month, albeit it came in different circumstances. Here, they had to be very cautious as Hazlewood was getting seam movement both ways under lights on a pitch which had the Indian spin trio calling the shots. There were some moments of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when Kohli had close shaves and was beaten in facing Hazlewood and Starc, while he got cheers from the crowd on every single run he scored.

When things started to calm down, the crowd had a literal heart-in-the-mouth moment when Kohli mistimed a pull from Hazlewood, evoking the flashback of a similar dismissal against the same opposition in 2015 World Cup semi-final.

But 2023 Chennai didn’t follow the script of 2015 Sydney as Mitchell Marsh made a meal of the catch after running in from mid-wicket, giving Kohli a reprieve at 12 and the crowd roaring hugely in delight. From there, tentativeness started to make way for assuredness as Kohli brought is pristine flick off the wrists twice in the mid-wicket region off Cameron Green in the 15th over.

“Virat said there’s big help in the wicket, and (we) just have to play proper shots and play like it’s Test cricket for some time and see where it goes. That was mostly the plan, and happy that we could do the job for the team,” added Rahul.

Focus also began to be on Rahul, who was up against leg-spin of Adam Zampa in what was another intriguing battle in the game after negotiating the new ball. Six months ago, at the same venue, Rahul had mistimed a shot off Zampa to long-on when 124 runs were needed off 132 balls and India fell 21 runs short of chasing 269.

This time, Rahul gave the knockout punch to Zampa – timing his late cuts perfectly, piercing the gap in the off-side to pick a brace of fours on outside off-stump deliveries. Rattled by that, Zampa went for an overpitched delivery on the last ball of the 18th over, but Rahul was quick to pounce on it, driving through extra cover for his third boundary.

Kohli and Rahul would keep the scoreboard moving with their quick running between the wickets, before the former raised his fifty with a pull off Pat Cummins. Two overs later, Rahul got his half-century as the 100-run stand also came up, with Australia’s bowling suddenly down on penetration.

With dew also coming in, plus Zampa not getting his groove, Kohli and Rahul continued to take boundaries off pacers and spinners as India inched closer to victory. Though Kohli fell when 33 runs were needed, with fans giving him a thunderous applause, Rahul stepped up to complete the chase, thus showing why the team management was desperate for his return from a thigh injury and then a niggle.

“There was a bit of help for the fast bowlers with the new ball when we bowled. And later on the spinners came in and they had a lot of help from the wicket. But I think towards the end – in the last 15-20 overs – the dew played a bit of a part for them; while they were bowling, they changed the ball as well. Once that happened, it did come on a little better,” stated Rahul.

If there’s one thing which is a difference in 2019 and 2023 World Cup squads, it is the presence of a solid middle-order batter. In 2019, the Russian roulette around the middle-order, which included Rahul shifting to opening slot from middle-order after thumb injury cut Shikhar Dhawan’s time, meant India didn’t have a batter with consistent game time behind to arrest any top-order collapse there.

Rahul re-entered the middle-order scene in early 2020 when a concussion to Rishabh Pant meant a spot had to be filled. Since then, Rahul has made that place his, amassing 1326 from 27 innings at an average of 66.30, including three centuries and 10 fifties.

Apart from handling pace and spin well, Rahul has an innate ability to soak in pressure and ride his way through to get the team out of crisis, seen from his fifties against Sri Lanka at Kolkata in January and against Australia at Mumbai in March, something which is not present in other competing sides, who mainly have big-hitters in the middle-order.

“We always knew what Rahul brings to the table for the team. The quality batter that he is, especially in the middle-order, he’s a kind of player who plays spin well, as well as against fast-bowlers and seam. In that sense, he gives you some stability, confidence and with the way he played in the past, we trusted him and it’s good to have him back,” said bowling coach Paras Mhambrey in the post-game mixed zone.

As the stadium played ‘Believer’ from Imagine Dragons band, followed by AR Rahman’s ‘Maa Tujhe Salam’, India were able to stop a pattern of batting meltdowns costing them crucial matches with Kohli’s poise and Rahul’s sortedness, as the fans got their moments of joy mixed with relief after being stunned into silence.

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