Despite being the best team during the course of this year’s ODI World Cup, India lost the final to Australia, which abruptly ended the GOAT (greatest of all time) talk around the team during its unbeaten run through the tournament.
Indeed, despite the defeat, this Indian team will go down in history as one of the greatest ever in ODIs. However, it was also a flawed team from the beginning. These flaws were papered over during India’s dominant run, but ultimately cost it dearly in the most important game of the tournament.
Statistically, among the greatest of all time…
India won 10 games on the trot in this World Cup. Except for the World Cup-winning Australian teams of 2003 and 2007, both of whom remained unbeaten through 11 games, no other team has achieved this feat.
The batting was exceptional, with four of the top five averaging more than 50 (the fifth, Shubman Gill, averaged more than 44). Each one of these batters had a strike rate of more than 90. The team on average lost fewer than 5 wickets in an innings, and was not bowled out in any match until the final.
The bowling was perhaps even more impressive, with all five frontline bowlers taking wickets while being extremely economical. They bowled out the opposition in 8 of their 10 matches, and dismissed them for under 200 runs 5 times.
Statistically speaking, this Indian team was comparable to the best-ever in history. But the great numbers do not tell the full story.
…But with a fatal flaw in team construction
Apart from Ravindra Jadeja, none of India’s batters could bowl, and no bowlers can bat. After the injury to Hardik Pandya, India played with 6 batters, one all-rounder, and four bowlers. This meant that India’s batting lineup was top heavy, with a long tail. This did not matter as long as the top order dominated bowling attacks, but in the final, the long tail impacted the game in more ways than one. More on that later.
Moreover, this also meant that India did not have a sixth bowling option to turn to. While India’s five bowlers were, in almost every game, more than capable of handling the opposition, the team was always just an injury or a bad performance away from being in deep trouble.
This flaw was obvious and visible. Everyone knew exactly what had to be done to put India under the pump. However, India had performed so well that no one got close to exploiting this weakness — until the final.
It all came to a head in the final against Australia
After winning the toss, Australian captain Pat Cummins put India in on a sluggish track. India got off to a flyer, courtesy yet another Rohit Sharma powerplay blitz. But all of a sudden, India were 81-3 after 10.2 overs.
After that, the pressure built rapidly, and the Indian batters went on the defensive. From scoring 80 in 10 overs, India reached the 100-run-mark in the 16th over, got to 150 in the 30th over, and 200 in the 41st over. They were unable to accelerate at the end, ran out of batters, and set a below-par target of 241 for Australia.
More than anything, the loss laid bare the issue with the team’s construction. After losing too many wickets early on, the Indian batters’ ultra-defensive attitude in the middle overs took the momentum out of the innings. This approach was the outcome of the instinct to protect the long tail.
Depth in batting is important not because the lower middle order is required to bat every time, but because a deeper batting lineup allows the best batters to bat with freedom. Having a capable batter at number 8 allows those ahead to play without fear of exposing the tail — unlike how India played after the power play in the final.
While the defeat in the final was not just due to India’s lack of batting depth, this approach by the team was not unique to Sunday’s game. Throughout the tournament, Virat Kohli batted conservatively in the middle overs to hold up one end while his partners went hell for leather.
In Ahmedabad, he was dismissed soon after scoring a 50, and India kept losing wickets while also not scoring a lot of runs. The tail was exposed in the 42nd over, with India just past 200 mark.