World Cup final: A temptation to chase at Ahmedabad

There hasn’t been a single 300-plus score in Ahmedabad in the World Cup. Three out of four matches, the team batting second won. The pitch has been trickier to score off at the beginning, with the first powerplays producing 51, 49, 48 and 41 runs so far. But scores of 81, 79, 38 and 57 in the second innings make it abundantly clear that the pitch becomes relatively easier to bat on as the day progresses.

India's head coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma during a practice session at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on Saturday. (ANI)
India’s head coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma during a practice session at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on Saturday. (ANI)

Australia have a 2-1 edge over India in World Cup knockouts this century; the only defeat, incidentally, coming at Ahmedabad in the 2011 quarterfinal when Yuvraj Singh prevailed in a thrilling chase with a resilient fifty. With both sides lining up again, this time for the World Cup trophy, will history repeat itself?

Tricky toss

It’s an age-old dilemma — put runs on the scoreboard or back yourself to chase if you win the toss. India haven’t chased since the league game against New Zealand on October 22, whereas Australia are fresh off a tricky semi-final against South Africa where they blasted 74 in the first 10 overs. In fact, both the wins prior to that came off chases as well, in contrasting style no less. Against Bangladesh, Mitchell Marsh came at No.3 to score an unbeaten 177 in an eight-wicket win. Before that, Australia seemed down and out against Afghanistan at 91/7 before Glenn Maxwell battled debilitating cramp to hit 201* off 128 balls in an astonishing victory. If India win the toss, there could be a temptation to put Australia in for a change.

This is surely not going to be a high-scoring pitch. In 30 matches at Ahmedabad, the 300-run barrier has been breached only six times, four of them coming in two matches. Devon Conway and Rachin Ravindra hit hundreds in the World Cup opener, but it came batting second as New Zealand romped to 283 losing just one wicket. That said, individual hundreds don’t come too frequently, and you have to go back to 2014 to find the last centurion (Ambati Rayudu) here.

And since the pitch (No 5) where Pakistan had batted first to score 191 will be in use here, there might be even less motivation to bat first. The quickest scoring team in this World Cup, India have also bagged the best average per wicket in the first 10 overs. With six batsmen averaging more than 50 and six bowlers averaging under 25, India really don’t need to second guess themselves. But if they were to split hairs, the shaky middle-overs bowling against New Zealand in the semi-finals may come up for dissection. It’s not a compelling point but something India might want to consider before deciding at the toss.

Middle overs key

Spinners average 36.5 runs per dismissal at Ahmedabad, with a decent strike rate of 44.7 balls per wicket. But extremely crucial is that boundary percentage of 7.2 at a ground where batters have preferred to nudge the spinners around and not risk the large outfield. At the same time, the middle overs have also been pretty productive with the second powerplay scores (for innings beyond the 40-over mark) reading 173, 202, 138, 172, 149, 132 and 135 with an aggregate run rate of just over five. This is where matches can be won and lost.

India would want to bowl first because spinners have a better average (25.78 to 55.25) and strike rate (33.1 to 65.1) in the first innings at Ahmedabad. Case in point is the performance against Pakistan when they took seven wickets during overs 10-40 with Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav applying the brakes alternately with the fast bowlers, Jasprit Bumrah being the pick of them.

Batting first hasn’t been a problem for India so far with five hundreds scored by three players —Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul — and four batters averaging above 50. But when batting second, that goes down to two players — Kohli (118) and Rahul (177) — if you don’t want to take into account the 62.2 average of Rohit Sharma, who has focused on giving India quick starts.

The only time India batted at Ahmedabad — against Pakistan — they scored 113 in 123 balls of the second powerplay even when the target was fairly easy, after a 79-run head start in the chase of 191. Which only reiterates the point that the middle overs could be make or break for both teams.

Back of length balls

This goes out to batters of both teams, given the extremely formidable pace lineup they possess. Australia’s Test-length bowling — particularly of Josh Hazlewood — is making waves but watch out for those 8-10m length deliveries from pacers that have an economy of 4.6 and a strike rate of 40 balls per wicket in Ahmedabad. Equally pertinent will be how Kohli plays out Hazlewood against whom he averages just 10.2 in five dismissals. The all-time top five bowling performances at Ahmedabad have come from fast bowlers, all of whom were extremely effective by manipulating their lengths. Both Shami and Siraj tend to overpitch but Bumrah hitting the harder lengths in the middle overs could be crucial to India’s trajectory in this final.

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