Why India’s Semi-Final Loss Feels Like a Familiar Heartbreak

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Why India’s Semi-Final Loss Feels Like a Familiar Heartbreak

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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t is a familiar feeling. The richest board, the most talented bunch of players, the best support services… and yet another failure at the knockout stage for India, the fifth in as many years across ICC tournaments. You begin to wonder whether there is a pattern to these results. It is perhaps not the easiest thing to decipher, especially since the defeats have come in different formats – ODI and T20. Nor did India field the same team in every match; the captain changed too, for the last two defeats.

But four players have featured in each of the losses – Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, and Ravindra Jadeja. For the quartet, some may call it the bedrock of India’s white-ball cricket, Wednesday was the second straight loss in a World Cup semi-final.

In addition to these big names, Bhuvneshwar Kumar was also part of the team that lost the 2014 World T20 final to Sri Lanka. Two years later, in the WT20 semi versus the West Indies, the aforementioned quartet was joined by Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya who had become an integral part of the side by then. Bhuvneshwar joined them and the rest for the 2017 Champions Trophy final that India lost against Pakistan.

Although the Men in Blue often win at cricket, irrespective of the format, the failure to win knockout games must sting. Particularly so because the team is proud of its habit of winning. However, the “45 minutes of bad cricket” that Kohli identified as the reason for the defeat to New Zealand was not merely an aberration.

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Even on Wednesday, it was baffling to see Dhoni bat as low as number seven when the team had lost its most accomplished batsmen early.

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Instead, it was another phase of batting failure that has had some part to play in at least four of the five recent knockout losses. Against Australia (2015 World Cup) and Pakistan, India lost a clutch of top order wickets in a short time – 30 for 3 in the case of the former, 3-33 in the latter – while the 2014 World T20 final was marked by remarkably low scoring in the death overs against Sri Lanka. On Wednesday, India was three down for five in the fourth over.

Of course, there were extenuating circumstances in each of those matches. Both Australia and Pakistan set huge targets for the much-vaunted Indian batting, thereby causing a mini collapse in the face of a daunting required rate. In the 2016 WT20 semi, Lendl Simmons played a blinder while Lasith Malinga and the Kiwi pacemen produced a wonderful exhibition of fast bowling under differing conditions in other matches.

This may be seen as an excuse but opponents seem to unexpectedly raise their game for knockout matches against India. And they are not always the usual suspects. Just sample the displays of Simmons, Fakhar Zaman, and Matt Henry. They were probably not players who would have been identified as a major threat by the Indian side, but their contribution exceeded their reputation.

Irrespective of who hurts India, though, the extended streak of failures in crunch games has a power of its own to leave longer scars.

Irrespective of who hurts India, though, the extended streak of failures in crunch games has a power of its own to leave longer scars. Teams can come to be defined by such defeats. Just ask New Zealand. They lost six semi-finals in a row before finally cracking the code at the last World Cup. South Africa is another example, a side that seems to be paralysed by its past losses whenever a major tournament comes calling. So much so that they are branded the chokers. 

Sportspersons often talk about treating a knockout match like any other game but it remains a serious challenge nevertheless. As the calmer ones say, you must pretend like nothing special is happening even when it is. Perhaps, self-deception is the answer.

It is, of course, a fool’s endeavour to dissect what goes on in the mind of Indian players. It is not as if nerves have gotten the better of them. Rather, worryingly, the gap between performances has been too wide to bridge, sometimes owing to skill. In a tight game like the semi-final on Wednesday, it was the attacking mindset and bowling plans of the Kiwis that made the difference. Steve Smith’s careful manoeuvring of the field in the 2015 World Cup semifinal is another instance that comes to mind. The Indians came up significantly short on each occasion.

The trouble for India is that, before Wednesday, only once had it come close to winning in the knockout matches discussed here – the World T20 semi in 2016. As the team moves on from the latest disappointment, it might be worth pondering why the big-match occasion has turned out to be an overwhelming prospect for serial winners.

With a few members of this squad unlikely to feature in the team’s plans for the next major tournament, the World T20 in Australia at the end of 2020, it is important that those who stay behind address the multiple failures in ICC tournaments that threaten to spoil the legacy of an exceptionally talented bunch of cricketers. Although one is unlikely to regard Kohli, Rohit, Hardik, Bumrah, or Bhuvneshwar as “bottlers”, some of the strange tactical choices over the past month give a cause for worry. For instance, the fiddling with the middle order barely instilled any confidence in the team’s batting resources. India trusted Kedar Jadhav for the majority of two years before giving his place to Dinesh Karthik for the fag end of this World Cup campaign. Even on Wednesday, it was baffling to see Dhoni bat as low as number seven when the team had lost its most accomplished batsmen early. The incongruity of Hardik Pandya batting ahead of the former skipper was hard to reconcile.

Perhaps, one success will pave the way for multiple breakthroughs in the coming years. To convince itself, India does not need to look further than its most recent opponent – the Kiwis. On Sunday, they return to the stage that they reached for the first time four years ago. The World Cup final.

As for India, it’ll be another four years before the World Cup comes home. The next edition will be played in the country and, for some of the players who lost on Wednesday, it would be a chance at redemption. They will  hope that a home World Cup will bring the trophy for a third time. It’s going to be a long uneasy wait.

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