India finished their Champions Trophy 2017 as runners up © Getty Images
India finished their Champions Trophy 2017 as runners up © Getty Images

Will India? Won’t they? What if they don’t? The suspense prevailed over India’s participation less than a month before the start of ICC Champions Trophy 2017. The cricket politics took the backseat as administrators bowed to larger interests. The spotlight followed Indian cricket. Were the coach and captain seeing eye-to-eye? Reports of rifts between Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli threatened to dampen India’s chances rekindling memories of the Chappell-Ganguly saga.

The external factors took a backseat when the Men in Blue stepped out on the greens. They were dominating in the warm-up matches against New Zealand and Bangladesh. For the first time ever, an Indian pace attack looked more lethal than their batting. With Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav in the ranks, the team was spoilt for choices.

On the other hand, Pakistan, who entered the tournament as the eighth-ranked ODI side in the eight-team tournament, stunned the fraternity with their display in the warm-up game. First, they let Bangladesh score in excess of 340 and then they went on to chase it down. Their match against Australia ended in a washout. Where India were hot favourites, Pakistan had enough demons to conquer.

They lost a few key players to the PSL spot-fixing. There were calls for enquiries post their humiliation at Birmingham in the hands of India. Battling inconsistencies, hostilities and their own mercurial self, they beat the odds to qualify for the final to set up another clash against India, where they emerged victorious by 180 runs.

Pakistan scripted folklore. For India it meant learning, especially for the new captain Kohli with 2019 World Cup in sight.

This is about India, a tournament they entered as the defending champions and ended up runners-up. Where did they err?

Team Review

India, England, Australia and South Africa were conferred with the ‘favourites’ tag. New Zealand, like always, were the dark horse. These tags count for nothing once the sides step onto the greens.

Australia and South Africa failed to proceed beyond group stage. New Zealand suffered similar fate as they lost to Bangladesh at Cardiff. The venue was to witness more shock. England’s run ended as Pakistan surprised them at the penultimate stage.

It was only India amongst the ‘favourites’ to make it to the final. They had conquered Pakistan with little fuss in their tournament opener at Edgbaston. It was a dominating show from India.

Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli got big scores but it was Yuvraj Singh’s 32-ball 53 and Hardik Pandya’s 6-ball unbeaten 20 that soared the total to 319 in their stipulated 48 overs. Pakistan were no match and folded for 164. India made a statement by picking Umesh over Ravichandran Ashwin.

India were overwhelming favourites against Sri Lanka. The clash at The Oval saw India batting first and putting up 321. Dhawan slammed 125 whereas Rohit and MS Dhoni got crucial fifties. Kedar Jadhav’s 13-ball 25 not out helped India to that score. At one stage, 340 was on the cards.

India missed out on a trick by promoting Jadhav instead of Dhoni in order to step up the run rate. The extra 20 runs could have made a difference.

The rebuilding Sri Lankan side made the chase look comfortable. The platform was set courtesy a 159-run second-wicket stand between Danushka Gunathilaka (76) and Kusal Mendis (89). Kusal Perera got 47 before skipper Angelo Mathews (52*) and Asela Gunaratne (34*) finished things in the 49th over.

With 3 pacers on the go, the Indian bowling attack presented little variations and Kohli’s leadership under pressure was exposed to great extent. He went on the defensive and even when new batsmen took guard in the middle overs, he did not attack them enough with his strike bowlers.

The defeat was a reality check before they took on the No.1 ranked ODI side South Africa at the same venue. The clash was a virtual quarter-final as South Africa’s defeat in hands of Pakistan had made this contest a do-or-die one for them too.

Not knowing what is the best score to defend, India chose to bowl. To add variety to their armoury, India picked Ashwin ahead of Umesh; a ploy that worked well.

Dhawan was the best batsman in the tournament with 338 runs © Getty Images
Dhawan was the best batsman in the tournament with 338 runs © Getty Images

South Africa were going strong at 140 for 2 in the 28th over before they decided to self implode. Two mindless run outs saw the back of AB de Villiers and David Miller. Indian bowlers tightened the grip since and cleaned up the Proteas for 191. The chase was comfortably completed by India in 38 overs with Dhawan and Kohli registering fifties.

India were off to the semis.

India travelled back to Edgbaston to face Bangladesh in the semis. Electing to bowl again, India were expecting a repeat of the South Africa show. Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim provided good resistance taking Bangladesh to 154 for 2 in the 28th over. The set batsmen threw away their wickets and Indian bowlers once again made in-roads.

Bangladesh, who looked set for 320, managed 264. India’s top three finished it off in 40.1 overs. Rohit got 123 not out and Kohli remained unbeaten on 96.

The summit clash: India vs Pakistan was set to be one of the most-watched sporting events ever. The marketers played with the hype, the overused clichés like ‘mother of all battles’ surfaced.

Kohli played it down as just another game. For Sarfraz he had made it clear that Pakistan had nothing to lose. Pressure was definitely on the stronger Indian side.

The toss went Kohli’s way. He chose to bowl. A debatable decision considering the occasion but one has to give it to Kohli because he backed India’s strength in chasing.

India missed run out opportunities. Then Bumrah made the cardinal sin of taking a wicket off a ‘no ball’. Fakhar Zaman was the batsman, who made India pay with a 106-ball 114, the highest score by a Pakistani batsman in a final of an ICC ODI event. Pakistan’s opening stand of 128 gave them the platform. They capitalised on that.

Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja leaked 137 wicket-less runs from their 18 overs. Add Bumrah’s 68 from 9 overs to that. Kohli brought in Jadhav in the death overs which made little sense. Jadhav bowling an extra over meant Bumrah bowling one less.

When tides haven’t gone India’s way, Kohli’s leadership has been questionable. Now, chasing 339 was a big ask.

India had in-form batters well capable of chasing down anything. They were up against an attack consisting Mohammad Aamer, Junaid Khan, Hasan Ali, Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan. Aamer and Junaid had good records against India and the likes of Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli were also up against ‘law of averages’.

Aamer had the last laugh and law of averages took its due course.

India were 33 for 3 in the ninth over and looked out of the game. Yuvraj and Dhoni never gave the confidence that they once did. They departed cheaply. Pandya fought a lone battle with a 43-ball 76 striking 6 sixes, 3 of them coming consecutively against Shadab’s leg-spin. He fell to a misunderstanding that led to a run out.

The ball-watching Jadeja could have sacrificed his wicket but he did not. Why? A relevant question not just Pandya but all stakeholders in Indian cricket must ask.

It was a huge ask for the Indian middle-order who had just faced over 25 overs collectively in the entire tournament.

Hasan Ali continued his good run and India meekly surrendered to a 180-run defeat.

***

India played well in the tournament. Ending up as runners-up in a mega event is a matter of great pride. Contrary to popular perceptions, this side was not complacent at all. Wins and defeats are a part of the sport. Pakistan raised their game on the ultimate stage and were the better side.

“I want to congratulate Pakistan, they had an amazing tournament, the way they turned things around, speak volumes for the talent they have. They proved it again, they can upset anyone on their day, disappointing for us but I have a smile on my face because we played well to reach the final,” Kohli said after the match.

The statement won him more fans in Pakistan.

But India have issues to address.

Road ahead and the ‘internal hurdles’ to be crossed

The working relationship between the captain and the coach should be at its best for any side to flourish. CoA, CAC, BCCI and the team management need to work on this. The reported bad vibes between Kohli and Kumble will only end up bringing Indian cricket down. For a long-term solution, this is an issue that needs to be addressed right away.

India need to be certain with the horses for courses theory. Ashwin and Jadeja have not been at their best in the 50-over format. With due respect to their prowess, selectors need to be certain about players for major tournaments. Ashwin in particular has not threatened enough in the shorter formats.

India do have options in the likes of Amit Mishra, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Akshar Patel and Krunal Pandya.

The bigger question lies with the middle-order. Does Yuvraj and Dhoni provide the side enough ammunition in the middle overs?

ODI cricket has evolved. So have the demands. At 33 for 3, say if England were playing. Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes would have given the side enough hopes. Yuvraj and Dhoni did not. They may still come up with the odd shows of brilliances but that is it.

India have young exciting talent at their disposal and with 2019 World Cup in mind, they should reassess their plans and see if the 2 stalwarts fit in the, or the way forward are the Rishabh Pants and KL Rahuls of the world.

All great things come to an end.

The road ahead otherwise paints a positive frame for this side. The pace department looks sorted, so does the top-order and lower-middle-order. Pandya’s addition has given the side an extra dimension and Kohli will only improve as a leader with more experience.

Parallels will be expectedly drawn alongside Dhoni. But that should be it. The armchair critics will do what they are best at but there is little to worry about this side as a collective unit.