Cricket World Cup 2019: Virat Kohli’s Indian cricket team has momentum, yet peak form awaits
India captain Virat Kohli at practice at The Ageas Bowl. © AFP

SOUTHAMPTON: What is to be made of India‘s run at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 so far? Along with New Zealand, they are the only team out of ten to not lose a match so far. Unlike New Zealand, who needed Kane Williamson’s bloody-minded brilliance to drag them to a last-over win over South Africa, this Indian cricket team has not been pushed into a corner yet.

India entered the World Cup as the most popular choice, with England, to win the tournament. So far, they’ve brushed aside South Africa, Australia and Pakistan. The washout at Trent Bridge gave them and New Zealand one point each. On Saturday, Virat Kohli‘s team meets Afghanistan at The Rose Bowl in Southampton. Ahead lie West Indies, England, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, who have beaten top-ranked England.

In a league stage spanning nine matches, Kohli wouldn’t want his team to “peak too early” as the chorus goes. They have had not had to hit third gear in any match so far. They have played well within themselves. India will expect to pocket two points off Afghanistan to move to nine. Only an unforeseen run of bad performances can push them out of the top four. Only England can push them, realistically.

Jasprit Bumrah Mohammed Shami
Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami will lead India’s attack against Afghanistan. AFP

Do Indian teams like being favourites? Historically, no. The way this World Cup has panned out, it has been too easy for Kohli’s unit.

(ALSO READ: India eye semi-final passage against Afghanistan)

But now, with Shikhar Dhawan out of the tournament and Bhuvneshwar Kumar likely to miss at least two matches, if not three, India are slightly vulnerable. I say slightly, because despite losing Dhawan – or Mr ICC, given his record – the team has a more than capable opening option in KL Rahul, and a very good new-ball bowler in Mohammed Shami.

Vijay Shankar turned up for the pre-match press conference on Friday at The Rose Bowl, which as good an indicator as any that the toe injury from two days ago is not severe enough to rule him out of the Afghanistan fixture. That means that India have their preferred No 4 and will not need to experiment with one of Rishabh Pant or Dinesh Karthik. At least not yet.

(ALSO READ: As injuries pile up, India look to stay adaptable)

But if you are to imagine that more misfortune hits this Indian team, matters could turn dire very suddenly. A serious hamstring injury for a fast bowler can take a few weeks to heal. Bhuvneshwar’s has been termed a hamstring strain and the management hopes to get him back for the England match on June 30. But should bad luck hit India, they do not have another pace option beyond Shami. The selectors picked three fast bowlers and added Ravindra Jadeja as a third spin option, while banking on Hardik Pandya as the fourth pace resource.

Khaleel Ahmed was sent back to India a few days ago. Pant has linked up with the squad as Dhawan’s replacement, having been dumped for the World Cup in April. As smooth as it has been on the field, India will hope the injuries don’t pile up.

Vijay Shankar India national cricket team
Vijay Shankar: “I will look to get better in every aspect of the game.” AFP

For Shankar, India are not taking any team lightly. Each match offers them a chance to improve, and that’s how India like it.

“It’s not about against whom we’re playing. I think it’s about how we play as individuals,” he said. “We always look to get better, even when we get to practice session. That is the only motive that we have. So we’ll just look to get better. So it doesn’t matter against whom we’re playing. It’s just about how we play against each and every individual. It should be the same.”

(ALSO READ: For winless Afghanistan, World Cup not indicative of potential)

Every time a member of the Indian team has spoken, the refrain has been that it is vital to get your best form going in the business end of the World Cup. Kohli and Rohit Sharma have addressed the importance of feeding off the good days, the big innings and the wickets taken. Staying upbeat, training hard, not getting carried away – this is what the Indian team’s mantra has been all tournament.

Despite the setbacks of Dhawan’s hairline fracture of the thumb and Bhuvneshwar’s hamstring strain, this Indian team looks like one yet to hit peak form. How players like Rahul and Shami step up will continue to shape India’s path to the semi-finals.

You can be forgiven for saying that it’s all been rather easy for India at this tournament, but under the surface, this team knows that having your peak form coincide with the most vital phase of the World Cup is what really matter. And that’s where India remain the team to beat, unlike England who, after defeats to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, could end up in the semi-finals as sudden underdogs.