Fifteen runs in the first over, 80 at the end of 10 overs and an opening partnership of 105 in 14 overs. When India and Australia met in a World Cup final at the Wanderers in Johannesburg 20 years ago, the contest was probably as good as over by the completion of the first hour.
Even before Ricky Ponting could take strike and bludgeon the ball with glee to all parts for a majestic 140, India’s bowlers had conceded any semblance of control by failing to come to grips with the magnitude of the occasion. Zaheer Khan, not the unflappable, all-terrain bowler that he turned into later, began inauspiciously with an expensive 10-ball over. And Australia were away, finishing with an imposing 359/2 to redefine the boundaries of what’s a steep total in a knockout fixture.
In Ahmedabad on Sunday, as the two rivals lock horns again, expect anything but that sort of profligacy and nervousness from the Indian bowlers first up. This is an attack that is well-drilled, battle-hardened and familiar with these conditions. The tone is invariably set by Jasprit Bumrah, who homes in on the good length zone as if he owns that plot of land — an economy of 3.13 in the opening powerplay is evidence of his efficiency. Mohammed Siraj can spray the odd boundary ball in the quest for wickets, but skipper Rohit Sharma tends to quickly regain control with the introduction of Mohammed Shami as first change. Ravindra Jadeja is the quintessential miser through the middle overs while Kuldeep Yadav has far greater accuracy than what he did four years ago.
Unless the pitch is a featherbed, how do Australia tame this top-notch Indian attack?
By being Australia perhaps. It may seem like a simplistic response, but Australia’s batters – going into their shell is not in their character — have to stay true to their natural instincts. Which in the case of David Warner, Travis Head, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell and Josh Inglis at least is to be extremely aggressive. It’s certainly easier said than done against a bowling unit constantly on the prowl for wickets and carrying threats from multiple directions, but such big occasions call for batters to show clarity of thought and total conviction in their strokes.
“I think one of the key things we have found against India is that if you can get the ball scuffed early enough, play a few shots even if it is swinging, just take them on try and get some sort of edge into the cricket ball,” Maxwell said on the Club Prairie Fire podcast recently. “If you can get (the ball) to stop swinging and make them go to spin, you can put them under some kind of pressure. I think we have found teams which have gone defensively against them in the (opening) powerplay, then you are just a sitting duck. You are basically going to bring them back in the game.”
If Australia are to exert pressure back on India’s attack, the impetus will have to be provided by the top three of Warner, Head and Marsh, each of whom is equipped with the shots and game sense to produce an explosive knock. That they have a run rate of 6.55 in the opening powerplay also suggests they have been playing that way over the past six weeks. Except that they limped to a pedestrian 43/1 in the first 10 overs when these two teams last met in Chennai on October 8 in their opening game of the tournament.
Head wasn’t available on that occasion, and Australia would like to believe that his return at the top of the order has lent a different dimension to their batting unit since. In his very first game at this World Cup, Head showed what he brings to the table with a 67-ball 109 as Australia reached 118/0 in 10 overs and an overall score of 388 against New Zealand. Even against South Africa at the Eden Gardens on Thursday, on a track that became progressively tougher to bat on, Australia’s slender victory was possible only because they had zoomed to 60/0 off the first six overs.
Perhaps they should take a cue from New Zealand, who have twice shown that this Indian attack, particularly now that a sixth bowling option in Hardik Pandya is unavailable, can be got at. Sure, New Zealand came up against India on probably two of the flatter surfaces in this tournament, but they were able to unearth frailties once the ball stopped swinging. And they did that by being bold, playing the ball on merit rather than the robust reputation of the Indian bowlers.
Which is what Rohit Sharma has done with the bat right through this campaign. Even against left-arm pacers Shaheen Afridi, Trent Boult and Marco Jansen, an angle of attack he is considered to be slightly susceptible against, the India captain has shed his inhibitions and found a way to fetch quick runs.
Australia may not be able to tee off to the extent that they did all those years ago, but their intention and instinct has to be to attack. Otherwise, India’s bowlers will be all over them just like they have been against most opponents in this World Cup.