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regular-article-logo Monday, 15 April 2024

ICC World Cup semifinal I: As the ‘Ro-Ko’ roar gets louder, will the Kane-Rachin buzz match up to it?

This New Zealand team is setting out to script its golden legacy while Team India, two-time champions themselves, want to cast off the heavy burden of legacy and write its very own fairytale

Sanjeeb Mukherjea Published 15.11.23, 11:39 AM

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Settling down in New Zealand in 1997, Ravi Krishnamurthy, a club-level cricketer turned software architect from Bangalore, would not have known destiny would bring him back to his country of birth 25 years later. Or that naming his new-born would whip up a media frenzy in India years later as it would sound to be a perfect mix of two of Indian, and world cricket’s biggest first names, Rahul (Dravid) and Sachin (Tendulkar).

Cut to the present-day business end of ODI cricket’s biggest shingle, Krishnamurthy has witnessed Indian cricket fans across the country claiming the kid’s heritage as their own, even as the youngster, Rachin Ravindra, has gone on to emerge as one of the breakout performers for New Zealand in this World Cup.

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Wellington-based Hutt Hawks Cricket Club, put together by Krishnamurthy and few like-minded folks in 2011, has been traveling to India every year to help youngsters adjust to subcontinental conditions. Rachin, too, has been on these tours, picking up the art of batting in pitches that fairly resemble the ones he’s now mastered in the World Cup.

A Test match saviour in India, would he have automatically made the cut? Perhaps not. Michael Bracewell’s injury got him into the squad, and then Kane Williamson’s injury sent him into the playing XI, and bat in the top order.

A phenomenal 565 runs with three tons, the tournament’s third highest run-getter Ravindra’s linking up with the dashing Devon Conway has been one of the biggest plus points for the New Zealanders. Running, gyming, nets, the Ravindra-Conway association that teed off in Wellington a few moons ago, will now be put to its sternest test as New Zealand come up against a domineering India; India with its very own unstoppable Ro-Ko (Rohit-Kohli) factor, India with one of the best ODI bowling attacks of all-time, and India with a new zing with Md. Shami announcing his intentions to make this Cup his own.

Md Shami is the man

The same Shami, who in spite of his inscrutable skillset, as most batsmen would testify, was warming the benches as the team think-tank preferred the military-medium Shardul Thakur’s superior batting prowess when India embarked on their quest for glory.

The upright seam, often with subtle changes transduced as he steams in, using multiple angles while bowling from different points on the bowling crease, the perfectly calculated release point with his high-arm action honed by years of practice, Shami has been simply unplayable in this World Cup. Look no further than the 10-ball incarceration of Ben Stokes when India demolished the defending champions in Lucknow, and it was evident Shami is in a different league, all by himself. That his abstinence of biryani, his favourite dish, still makes more news than his metamorphosis into the most complete fast bowler in present times, perhaps adds to the bizarre this game often offers by means of surround sound.

Talk of this being a game where the toss is irrelevant begs to be thrown out of the window; more so because this is a winner-takes-it-all game. Wankhede has a bias against chasing teams, and this World Cup hasn’t been any different with teams batting first winning all but one match when Glenn Maxwell conjured up an impossibly delightful dream riposte as Australia humbled the heroic Afghans.

Wankhede as Rohit’s backyard

Mumbai’s afternoon heat coupled with the humidity has sent bowlers on a leather hunt, with teams often racking up very big totals batting first. The second innings start though, usually as the sun sets on the city, has produced greater yield for the men blessed with the gift of swing, as pacers have picked up wickets by the bucketful. Only one man can do better even if he faces a reverse at the toss, and that is Indian captain Rohit Sharma who knows the Wankhede and all that it offers even better than his own backyard.

It’s the opening act, be it bowling or batting, that has been India’s x-factor this time around. Wrecker-in chief Matt Henry, whose opening spell sent India hurtling to defeat in the 2019 World Cup semi-final in Manchester, was given a proper working over by Rohit himself when the two teams met in the group stage this time around. Outscoring all in the first Powerplay, his blazing starts have ensured India have always been ahead, be it setting a target, or scripting a chase. With Henry ruled out of the tournament due to injury, Rohit is now likely to be tested by the Boult-Southee combine, a duo that has dismissed him seven times in the past. But as they say, the past isn’t one to hunker over when you are looking to script your own history.

Only time India were tested

While India did trump the Kiwis in their group encounter, it was the only time the Men in Blue came close to being really tested, though they waltzed home to safety. And one of the few positives that New Zealand took from that game – Mitchell Santner, could be the one whose spell decides this game tonight. A top performer against India in ICC duels, Santner will look to bog down the right-hander heavy Indian batting line-up. With a favourable record against Virat Kohli, Santner could be the key to New Zealand’s success, though there are two other factors that could come in to play too.

New Zealand pacers have dominated Indian top-orders in all encounters in ICC tournaments in the recent past, thus allowing Santner to come in the middle overs and apply his stranglehold. But the Wankhede has been pretty unforgiving for spinners in this World Cup, and that could put a spanner in the works. And eagerly awaiting this epic showdown would be Ravindra Jadeja, who Santner plays second fiddle to, at the Chennai Super Kings.

Jadeja, in the company of MS Dhoni, took India to the doorstep of a magnificent win in Manchester four years ago, only to fall just when victory was in sight, as the Kiwis went through to the final. Santner, one of the protagonists of that famous win, bowled exceedingly well, as New Zealand turned in one of its finest ODI performances. Revenge might not be best consumed as a frozen dish, but Santner knows all too well Jadeja is itching for a fitting reply.

The sixth bowling option?

In their final group game against the Netherlands, Team India saw its convincing victory march felled from the headlines as the rare phenomenon of Ro-Ko rolling their arms over, and picking up a wicket apiece, made gleeful headlines. New Zealand would be looking to bring them on to bowl tonight. To put it succinctly, Williamson’s men will try and go after one of the regular bowlers, in a bid to force Rohit to bring on a sixth bowling option. Conversely, Rachin Ravindra and Glenn Phillips, part-timers who have filled a big hole in the bowling unit, are likely to go under the pump as the Indian batters would be sizing up their options too.

World cricket has witnessed 40-odd days of such cricketing brilliance from India, that every team feared running into the hosts in the semi-final of the 2023 ICC Cricket World Cup. An overpowering well-oiled winning machine that has shaken off every possible challenge, hardly breaking a sweat. Lying in wait, New Zealand, the old enemy. The one team possibly everyone wanted to avoid playing at this stage.

Across formats, India have lost their last four ICC knockout games to New Zealand, a team who themselves have exited the last three 50-over World Cups tasting defeat at the hands of one of the hosts. Talk of unbeaten streaks, both teams would want theirs to snap tonight. This New Zealand team is setting out to script its golden legacy, a feat that has eluded the best of their past generations, and beating India would be the penultimate step. Team India, 2-time champions themselves, want to cast off the heavy burden of legacy, and write its very own fairytale. For sure, for one of the teams, tonight, winter is coming.

Sanjeeb Mukherjea is a sports television personality. An award-winning anchor-journalist, Mukherjea now doubles up as host and commentator for major sports broadcasting networks in India.

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