Rohit Sharma springs to his feet. Virat Kohli brings the bat closer to his chest and gives it a twirl. Shreyas Iyer taps the bat violently on the ground. KL Rahul hangs his bat in the air. As for Shubman Gill, he remains still. The subtle motions, as the bowler runs in, are often an indicator that something special might happen on the incoming ball.
On Wednesday, as India overcame nerves and a gritty New Zealand by 70 runs to enter the World Cup final, it almost unfailingly meant Rohit lofting the ball over covers, Kohli unleashing a bottom-handed whip, Iyer walloping the ball into the stands, Rahul clearing the square boundary and Gill gloriously caressing the ball through midwicket.
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These montages of ultimate swagger have been playing on a loop over the last six weeks. And while the bowlers have provided the ‘wow’ factor with breathless displays of seam bowling, like Mohammad Shami did by claiming 7/57, it’s the Fab Five who have laid the foundation for most wins as India extended their spectacular run to make it 10 out of 10.
Maybe because it’s always been India’s stronger suit that batting hasn’t been spoken about with the same admiration as bowling. Only once, against England, has a batsman outside the top five had to walk into a tricky situation to bail out the team. Barring that one-off day on a low-scoring pitch in Lucknow, the quintet has got the job done in every match India have played in this World Cup.
Hence, the result seemed almost inevitable when the coin dropped in India’s favour at the toss. Rohit had no hesitation to bat first on a flat Wankhede deck, on a humid Mumbai afternoon against a struggling New Zealand bowling unit that had conceded runs in excess of 350 to the other two semifinalists, Australia (388) and South Africa (357).
Rohit goes for jugular
And there’s an arrogance about the way the batsmen have gone about executing the demolision job. It begins, as it has throughout the campaign, with Rohit 2.0.
There’s a thing in football that when you’re trying to take down an opponent that’s an equal or stronger, you go and tackle their best player first to get everyone on your team into the match and also send a strong message to the rivals.
Cricket isn’t a contact sport but Rohit did the next best thing possible: in a non-violent fashion, he went after New Zealand’s best bowler, Trent Boult, from the first over, hitting him for boundaries on either side of the wicket on back-to-back balls. New Zealand, who might have missed a trick by opting for Tim Southee ahead of Ish Sodhi on a slow pitch, were rattled. India’s batsmen had an answer for every New Zealand plan.
Smashed for two boundaries, Boult went around the wicket. Immediately, Rohit charged to dispatch him over extra cover. They then came at him with bouncers.
Casually, he took a step back and thwacked the ball over the backward square-leg fence.
New Zealand would have hoped for a little bit of peace to drag the momentum in their favour after Rohit was caught magnificently at long-off by Kane Williamson in the 9th over. But that wasn’t to be.
Gill, who began cautiously, went into counter-attacking mode immediately in the next over, hitting Lockie Ferguson for two fours. Williamson persisted with his ace pacer even after Gill punished him for one more boundary in the next over but after the opener clobbered him for a four and a six in the 13th, Williamson was forced to take him off the attack.
When Mitchell Santner bowled up and outside off, charged forward and smashed the ball over the sightscreen. The next ball, Santner pitched it short and wide, and Gill cut him to the square boundary.
After Gill limped off due to cramps, New Zealand would have hoped to slow down the scoring rate but Shreyas Iyer hammered Rachin Ravindra for a six and a four in the 27th over and immediately, he was taken off the attack as well with Boult replacing him.
But the move to bring pacers in the middle overs did not reap the desired rewards as Kohli went on the offensive.
On Boult’s first ball of the second spell, Kohli marched forward and blasted the ball over mid-off for four. Then, in the next over – the second ball of the 30th – he stepped out of the crease once again and whipped Southee over mid-on and sent the ball sailing into the Sachin Tendulkar stand.
Williamson reverted to spin, praying that the ball would turn on a surface that was supposed to assist spinners, and Santner did play his part by bowling a maiden over to Iyer in the 35th. But in the next over, Iyer and Kohli – who apart from surpassing Tendulkar’s record of most ODI 100s also broke his record of scoring the most number of runs in a World Cup – looted 17 runs off the next over bowled by Southee.
It was the kind of controlled, coordinated attacking batting that has allowed India to tear apart most bowling attacks so it wasn’t a surprise to see them do what they did to New Zealand on a lifeless wicket.
There was already celebratory fervour in the stands when the Indian batsmen returned to the pavilion after setting New Zealand a target of 398. And it got deafening when Mohammad Shami picked up two quick wickets to leave the Kiwis stranded at 46/2 after the first powerplay.
The noise soon made way for nerves as Daryl Mitchell and Williamson stitched together a partnership of 181 (145 balls) to keep New Zealand interested in what would have been the second-highest run chase in ODIs.
New Zealand’s audacious effort was aided by uncharacteristically sloppy fielding by India, which included a wild overthrow by Ravindra Jadeja off his own bowling and Shami dropping Williamson.
The pacer ensured, however, that the missed chance did not haunt India as he returned to action was promptly picked up two wickets, including that of Williamson, to snuff out any hopes of a New Zealand fightback. As has been the case throughout this campaign, Shami – who took a wicket in each of his three spells – had the last laugh. But it was the batsmen who set the stage for the win.