It is certainly not a good time to face India. In great form, unbeaten in the World Cup and enjoying the home advantage, they are clear favourites against any opponent. But if that opponent is New Zealand, you can be sure there will be no shortage of motivation either.
A World Cup semi-final against the Kiwis is one game India’s players have been waiting for since they were knocked out at the same stage by Kane Williamson’s side four years ago.
There are many players who will be in action at the Wankhede Stadium on Wednesday who have a score to settle. That shock loss at Old Trafford meant Rohit Sharma’s five centuries in the tournament went down the drain; Virat Kohli’s captaincy career remains incomplete without an ICC crown; KL Rahul’s fine adaptability, switching from opening to middle-order, was wasted; Jasprit Bumrah’s sterling bowling on way to 18 wickets in nine games and Ravindra Jadeja’s superb comeback innings also proved in vain.
Since then India have whitewashed the Black Caps in a three-match bilateral series, but it is not the same when the stage is not of that level. The 2023 World Cup semi-final thus provides Rohit and Co a perfect platform to exact revenge.
There are many other reasons for the hosts to be extra motivated. In big events, the Kiwis have hurt them so many times in recent years – defeating them at Nagpur in the 2016 T20 World Cup opener, crushing the Kohli-led side in the 2021 ICC World Test Championship final, and handing an eight-wicket hammering in the 2021 T20 World Cup at Dubai.
You can expect India to play like men possessed. The key is not to have self-doubts. If they maintain the same certainty with which they played for the league game win at Dharamsala, the Kiwis don’t possess the wherewithal to stop them. The hosts enter the semi-final as a well-oiled machine – the entire batting unit has hit form, the pacers are breathing fire, and the spinners are in great rhythm.
But the India captain knows you write off New Zealand at your peril. As records show, they are a side who thrive on the big stage and have a knack of seizing crucial moments. They like this kind of a situation when the spotlight is elsewhere, and at Wankhede it will be firmly on India.
“Whenever we’ve come up against New Zealand, probably the most disciplined team in terms of how they want to play the game,” Rohit said on Tuesday. “And they play their cricket very smartly. They understand the opposition quite well. Having played with a lot of our players in different stages of their careers, different tournaments, they do understand the mentality of the opposition.
“It is the same for us as well. We do understand what they bring to the table and how they play their cricket. We have been closely following all the teams as to where their strength lies, where their weakness lies. And based on that, we try and go out there and play the game.”
Trust the Kiwi think-tank to be smarter from the league match defeat. More than the strategy worked in the dressing room, Rohit’s captaincy will be tested, his ability to think on his feet and match the moves on the field.
Expect the Kiwis to go for India’s head. They know if they can rattle Rohit, India will be rattled. Not just his captaincy, the opener has been the key to India’s batting success. With 503 runs at a strike rate of over 121, he has been seizing control of games by giving flying starts, taking down the main bowlers of the opposition. He did that to New Zealand’s new-ball bowlers with an aggressive 45 in Dharamsala to set up another tricky chase.
It eases the pressure on Virat Kohli (594 runs), allowing him to play to his strength and anchor the innings. The two stalwarts are the backbone of the line-up.
Given how much India rely on the top-order, New Zealand will go all out to make early inroads. With the ability of Tim Southee and Trent Boult to swing the new ball, and Lockie Ferguson’s express pace that can test batters, a mouth-watering contest is on the cards. NZ will hope their bowling unit clicks like in 2019 when India were reduced to five runs for three wickets in 3.1 overs – Rohit, KL Rahul and Kohli all dismissed for one run each.
From that experience, India will like to play it safe. They will be guarded against the pacers as a couple of quick wickets can prove decisive. At Mumbai, the pacers have been on fire bowling under lights. To avoid the toss becoming a factor, the grass has been shaved off the surface, which means spin will be a factor. Left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner is in good form with backing from Rachin Ravindra and Glenn Phillips, although India’s Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav are more potent in the spin department.
Ultimately, it will be about who soaks in the pressure better. That pressure will come mostly from the crowd. Wankhede will be packed to the rafters, the noise will be deafening when India are doing well, but if the Kiwis can silence them it can be killing for the home players.
As skipper Kane Williamson said it doesn’t get bigger than taking on India at their home in a World Cup game. “We know it’s going to be a really tough challenge. India are a side that’s been playing extremely well, but we also know come finals time, everything sort of starts again and it’s all about the day. So, for us as a team it’s very much the focus on our cricket again. We’ve played some good cricket throughout. We’ve had a couple of narrow losses and a few wins along the way which have put us in this position we’re in. So, we’re excited about the challenge ahead.”