India’s semi-final line-up hinges on Bhuvi-Shami equation

Pre-tournament favourites.

As this tag was thrust upon the Indian team as soon as they landed here for the 2019 Cricket World Cup, skipper Virat Kohli shot off a warning. There are bound to be a couple defeats, he had proclaimed, underlining how challenging this format would be.

Indeed, it has been exciting for those watching, despite a little slumber in the middle. So much so, it was only the last over of the group stage that outlined the two knock out clashes in Manchester and Birmingham, and as such, it is a victory for the format.

For India, the schedule was a mixed one. Cynics would say they started late and held an advantage. Sure, but twice in this format, they played a bunch of games within a short span of time. It was unique to this team and no one complained about this aspect. Of course, you may want to sit out if it feels right but at the end of the day, performance on the field is all that matters. ALSO READ: Bumrah unplayable at this stage, Shami will play against New Zealand in semifinal: Vettori

And when it did matter, they turned up the heat at different points and in various mannerisms. Clinical against South Africa, intense against Australia, hard-working against Afghanistan and West Indies, then sombre against England, resurgent against Bangladesh and in cruise mode against Sri Lanka – this Indian team has been a juggernaut in the group stage, despite Shikhar Dhawan’s injury, issues with batting line-up and Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s fitness concerns. Topping the league stage, they have had an absolute romp in this World Cup. ALSO READ: I always knew I can perform well on any track: Mohammed Shami

Now, looking ahead to the semi-final, Kohli is faced with a problem of plenty. The batting line-up is set, at least until number seven where there is chance of debate. And this is where the arguments really start setting in – extra bowler, back up the lower-middle order with extra batting, spin pairing, and indeed, pace combination? A plethora of options are available to the skipper, all proper whether it was New Zealand in Manchester or England in Edgbaston. ALSO READ: The only focus for me is on my preparation, my execution: Jasprit Bumrah

Against the English, the team balance would have perhaps swayed in a different direction, with Ravindra Jadeja the over-riding factor. Against the Kiwis now, it is an entirely different outlook, perhaps pegged on Kumar instead.

There is no doubt that Jasprit Bumrah is the pace numero uno in this Indian line-up today. Even so, Kumar has carved out a place for himself as the lead bowler of this attack. When fit, especially in conditions helping movement with the new ball, he can be quite a handful. Thing is, he has been bogged down by fitness issues in the past year or so, even though he was pretty much restricted to limited-overs’ cricket. ALSO READ: Don’t take praise or criticism seriously, what I can do for the team matters: Jasprit Bumrah

Kumar’s tale of resurgence with the white ball has coincided with Mohammed Shami’s return to the shorter formats. They combined well in Australia and New Zealand, and helped India win the series there. Did they wonder they might be competing for a spot six months down the line? Perhaps, albeit Kumar has a big advantage over Shami – his ability to bat at number eight and extend the batting line-up.

Let one be honest. This isn’t about bowling. If it were, this would be a no contest. Shami is bowling like a dream now, and you can just see it in the way that white ball is holding seam and shaping out of his hand at the moment. Never mind the hat trick, his rhythm is so on-point that it is tough to envisage a contender for his spot. If there is an argument to be made here, then perhaps it is with death bowling, where Shami still has a propensity to be expensive.

Kumar scores in that regard, albeit he had an off game against Sri Lanka at Leeds. Would that spell of 1-73 cost him a semi-final spot? It shouldn’t, but only if his all-round skills are in consideration. Let one add here that against the Black Caps, on a fresh pitch at Manchester, there is little chance of a repeat three-pacer attack, with the wrist-spin twins expected to reclaim their spots. Then, if India do not play either Jadeja or Kedar Jadhav, logically there is a need to shore up the lower-order batting.

This toss-up between Bhuvi and Shami is a tough one on any ordinary day, least of all a knock-out game in any World Cup. But this decision will probably have a domino effect on what team combination Kohli fields against New Zealand.