All-conquering India needs to be wary of batting second at the Wankhade in Mumbai, while Australia’s Adam Zampa may be key against South Africa
After 45 league matches in five-and-a-half weeks, we are down to four teams for the semi-finals of the Cricket World Cup 2023. It’s a dichotomy of this tournament that the league phase was so elaborate, with every team playing all other teams, but then the winner will be decided in one-off knockouts.
This means that there will be no distinction between league topper India, who won all their nine matches, and their semi-final opponent, New Zealand, who needed only five wins to get into the knockouts. The Indian Premier League (IPL) has a fairer format for this stage, where the top two teams in the league are rewarded with two cracks at making it to the final.
India’s sticky wicket test in Mumbai
Be that as it may, India now find themselves in a situation where one bad game can knock them out of cricket’s premier tournament, regardless of their clean sweep so far. To compound matters, their semi-final against the Kiwis today, at the Wankhede in Mumbai, is on a tricky wicket that has produced wild swings in performance.
India should be buoyed by their massive 302-run win over Sri Lanka on 2 November at this stadium. The pace trio of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, and Mohammed Shami was unplayable under lights at dusk. That’s when the new ball starts swinging prodigiously at the Wankhade.
But what if India were to bat second in the semi-final? Would the boot be on the other foot then, with the new ball in the hands of the Kiwi pace trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee, and Lockie Ferguson? Will it be a 2019 redux?
New Zealand’s Rachin Ravindra during practice.
India topped the league in the 2019 World Cup in England as well, before running into the Kiwis in the semi-final on a sticky wicket under an overcast sky in Manchester. They lost the top three batsmen—Rohit Sharma, K.L. Rahul, and then-skipper Virat Kohli— for five runs and never recovered.
This year’s Rohit Sharma-led team will want to script a different opening. One way to do that could be to dial down their risk-taking against the new ball, if they bat second, in the twilight zone at the Wankhede. They can catch up with the required run rate in the second half of their innings if they have wickets in hand.
Batting gets much easier once the ball stops swinging later in the evening. At that stage, no target is unattainable. Australia lost seven wickets for 91 runs in the first 19 overs against Afghanistan on 7 November. But Glenn Maxwell single-handedly won the game from there with an unbeaten double century.
That miraculous chase of nearly 300 will go down in World Cup history as one of the greatest ever turnarounds. But the key takeaway for the team batting second in today’s semi-final is that the chase would have been easier if the Aussies had batted conservatively in the first 20 overs and kept wickets in hand.
In the four league games at the Wankhede, the teams batting second have lost an astounding 30 out of their total 40 wickets within 20 overs. England, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Australia all suffered collapses. And their opponents—South Africa in two games, India, and Afghanistan—collectively lost only six wickets in the first 20 overs while batting first.
The divergence is so great that it will be foolhardy to think India can sail through without adapting their approach to put safety above run rate in that death zone. And it almost goes without saying, that the team winning the toss will opt to bat first to take advantage of the Wankhede’s unique Jekyll-and-Hyde character.
The 2 pm start, which is half an earlier than in the previous World Cup, minimises the effect of dew. But it also has the chasing team walking out to bat at 6:15 pm, just as dusk begins to fall, and the cool evening sea breeze blows in. It’s a perfect setting for swing bowling, and both sides have the protagonists to take advantage of such conditions.
New Zealand will be without their Grim Reaper from the 2019 semi-final, Matt Henry, who tore his hamstring this time. But Henry’s replacement, Southee, is an experienced campaigner, forming a dangerous new ball attack with Boult and Ferguson.
The return of Kane Williamson after a freak finger injury kept him out of a few games bolsters the Kiwi batting. The tournament’s third highest run-scorer, Rachin Ravindra, and big-hitter Daryl Mitchell, complement the steadiness of opener Devon Conway and skipper Williamson. After eliciting a chant of ‘Rachin, Rachin’ in Bengaluru, where he has his ethnic roots, Ravindra would love to get an encore in Sachin’s hometown.
India’s primary match-winning weapon is the triumvirate of Bumrah, Siraj, and Shami. The trio came together in fateful circumstances: An injury to all-rounder Hardik Pandya forced a replacement of slow medium-pacer Shardul Thakur with Shami in the fifth game. Since then, India have bowled the opposition out in every game with their five specialist strike bowlers.
The Indian spinners, Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja, as well as Kiwi spinner Mitchell Santner will enjoy the bounce in the Wankhede wicket which can induce miscues from batsmen. The red soil does produce some turn too, but spinners are also vulnerable on this ground which sees more than a normal quota of sixes. So it’s likely to be a battle between the rival pace trios.
A slow turner at Eden Gardens
India may well have preferred to be on the spin-friendly slow wicket at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, the venue for the second semi-final on Thursday. The host nation thrashed the runners-up in the league, South Africa, by 243 runs there on 5 November.
Now it will be Australia facing off against the Proteas in Kolkata for a place in the final. Like the Wankhede, the Eden Gardens too is generally a bat-first venue, but for a different reason. The wicket gets slower and lower, and the spinners get more turn, as the match goes on. A 300+ score can be hard to chase on this pitch, even with the help of dew.
Australia’s Adam Zampa celebrates after taking the wicket of Afghanistan’s Azmatullah Omarzai.
Australian leg-spinner Adam Zampa, the highest wicket-taker in the tournament so far, will relish the conditions. But so will South Africa’s left-arm spinner, Keshav Maharaj. And while Australia rely on a solitary specialist spinner, South Africa could get left-arm leg-spinner Tabraiz Shamsi to pair up with Maharaj.
The Proteas will be doubly keen to bat first, seeing that their only two losses, against India and the Netherlands, came while chasing. They also made a meal of chasing a modest target of 245 against Afghanistan in Ahmedabad last week.
Australia have had seven wins in a row after losing their first two league games against India and South Africa. They had a lucky escape against Afghanistan, and New Zealand almost caught up with their score of 388 in Dharamsala on 28 October. But the five-time ODI world champions are, as usual, humming at the business end of the tournament.
The induction of Travis Head at the top of the order, the timely return to form of David Warner, and the hitting power of Mitchell Marsh and Maxwell have driven their run of seven wins. Equally important is the growing confidence of Adam Zampa, who began the tournament with a whiplashing from K.L. Rahul. Zampa’s role is crucial because the Aussie pace bowling unit has not made a big impression with the new ball so far.Toss, strategy, and mindset will be the three factors that decide who plays in the final in Ahmedabad on Sunday.