As someone who has watched and played cricket at the Eden Gardens on numerous occasions, let me say that the atmosphere for the India-South Africa World Cup match last Sunday was beyond belief. Even though I was watching at home, I might as well have been at the stadium. The deluge of videos forwarded to me on WhatsApp by friends and family made me feel like I was taking in the electrifying atmosphere in person, with the sea of blue in the stands making up for the lack of blue in the sky on a gloomy day. No wonder that the South Africans felt the pressure, but the Indian team were ruthless in latching onto the Proteas’ errors.
I was surprised by how slow and sticky the pitch was at Eden. Over the last few years, the Eden wicket has generally been much harder, with more bounce. Having said that, the way India started their innings was incredible. Rohit Sharma has been batting on another planet in this World Cup and his approach during the powerplays has been thrilling to watch. Even though Shubman Gill has played second fiddle so far, he has also been in terrific form. But the match against South Africa was mostly about one man; the man who turned 35 in Kolkata and celebrated it in style by gifting the country a record-equalling 49th ODI century.
I am convinced that Kohli’s discipline has a positive correlation with his mental toughness
Kohli almost goes into auto-pilot on the big occasions, believes Ritwik
I have run out of superlatives to describe Virat Kohli. Prior to the match, Kohli’s former IPL teammate, A.B. de Villiers, had spoken about seeing “that look” in Kohli’s eyes and how it could be an ominous sign for South Africa. And so it turned out, as Kohli showed remarkable grit to anchor the innings for India. As a batter, I understand how much composure and presence of mind it takes to assess how a pitch is slowing down and how score projections have to be adjusted accordingly. What I liked about Kohli’s innings, and his partnership with Shreyas Iyer, was that instead of going hammer and tongs to get 300, the idea was to keep wickets in hand and bat sensibly. In doing so, India ended up with 326, which was well above par. Had they gone too hard too early — some were naively suggesting that Kohli deliberately slowed down to ensure his 100 — India may have folded up for a lot less, similar to what Pakistan did against India in Ahmedabad earlier on in the World Cup.
Aside from his technique, what continues to amaze me about Kohli is his mental strength and his ability to rise to the occasion. We all know the kind of disciplined, at times relentless, life he leads off the field. I am convinced that this has a positive correlation with his mental toughness. Which is why, on big occasions like at Eden the other day, he almost goes into auto-pilot and churns out the runs with minimum fuss and maximum impact.
India have won eight out of eight at this World Cup so far and are on track to have an unbeaten preliminary stage record for the first time since 2015
With Kohli going great guns and practically everyone in the team fulfilling their roles to perfection, I do not see any weakness in this Indian team right now. Yes, we do have a long tail, but the players are aware of that. So far, the top and middle order has played with a lot of responsibility and I do not see that changing. Will we miss Hardik Pandya in the knockouts? There is no simple answer to that. Pandya brings an X-factor with the bat and with his increasing maturity and experience can turn any game on its head. All-rounders like Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja can make you feel like you are playing with 12 players. When both start, you feel you have 13! That is the value they bring, and even though it is disappointing to see a player like Pandya getting ruled out of a competition like the World Cup, we still have Jadeja, who has been ticking all the boxes so far. Heading into the knockouts, his form with both bat and ball will be crucial.
Australia’s aura of invincibility has been enhanced by the Maxwell factor
Australia have won 11 out of their last 14 World Cup knockout matches
Speaking of the knockouts, I am excited to see Australia take on South Africa in the first semi-final at Eden. Not least because it presents a tantalising clash of narratives. On the one hand, there is Australia and their air of invincibility come the business end of World Cups. Out of their last 14 World Cup knockout games, Australia have won 11 (with one tie), including four out of five finals. On the other, there is South Africa, who have never made it to a World Cup final, in spite of reaching the semi-finals on four separate occasions. Two of those — against Australia in 1999 and against New Zealand in 2015 — rank among the most heartbreaking losses in World Cup history. This South African team, though, has played a different brand of cricket altogether, with the likes of Quinton de Kock, Rassie van der Dussen, Heinrich Klaasen and Aiden Markram on fire with the bat. With the ball, Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj were impressive against India and will need more support from the rest when they take on Australia in a bid to get rid of the ‘chokers’ tag once and for all.
Glenn Maxwell’s innings will inspire Australia to new heights, feels Ritwik
But there is one more factor to consider when weighing up the Australia-South Africa contest. The Glenn Maxwell factor. What Maxwell produced against Afghanistan at the Wankhede was the greatest ODI knock I have ever watched. I will always have a soft corner for Sachin Tendulkar’s 98 versus Pakistan in Centurion in 2003, but I think even Tendulkar would admit that what Maxwell did was on another level. Perhaps the only innings in World Cup or ODI history that comes close is Kapil Dev’s 175 against Zimbabwe in 1983. For my part, just like so many others, I have never seen that innings (it was never broadcast on TV). I have seen Ranveer Singh enact it (in 83), but safe to say that the real thing would have been something else! Perhaps some of Kapil Dev’s teammates or opponents from that game, who also happened to see Maxwell go berserk, can settle the debate.
However, what matters far more right now is the lift that Maxwell’s heroics would have given Australia. I have been part of many teams, irrespective of the level of cricket, where one person has conjured magic to change the complete complexion of a dressing room. Australia had been playing well even before Maxwell did what he did on Tuesday. But they also had uncharacteristic lapses, especially in the field, the kind that should disappear going forward. After Maxwell’s miracle in Mumbai, most of which was executed enduring excruciating pain, there is bound to be a multiplier effect in terms of confidence among the Australian ranks. Optimism becomes infectious when someone can inspire a team to victory from the jaws of defeat. Given how the tournament is unfolding, Maxwell’s brilliance could not have come at a better time. Consistency has never been his best friend, but he is one of the few players who can win a match single-handedly (quite literally, considering the state of his legs the other day!). When the knockouts arrive and one mistake can result in elimination, it is players like Maxwell that can emerge as the point of difference, as the catalyst in turning dreams into reality.
(As told to Priyam Marik)
Ritwik Roy Chowdhury is an integral member of the Bengal men’s cricket team and has represented the state in all three formats.