India must pick Ravichandran Ashwin for must-win Champions Trophy game against South Africa
This generation of Indian cricketers – MS Dhoni, with grey in his hair and stubble, and Yuvraj Singh, no longer the lean whippet of 2000 vintage, being the exceptions – has yet to experience an ignominious exit at a global 50-over event.
The 2011 World Cup and 2013 Champions Trophy were won, and the side won seven matches straight before losing to Australia in the semi-final of the 2015 World Cup.
On Sunday, at The Oval, the spectre of failure will loom large for both India and South Africa, the two teams that had been favoured to make it out of this group.
But with both slipping up in their second matches, the ground that was witness to India’s first Test win in England, back in 1971, becomes the venue for an IPL-style eliminator. The losers will be taking a flight back home on Monday.
The Virat Kohli-AB de Villiers mutual admiration society was on view on the eve of the game, but with both men having made ducks in their previous outings, the expectations will be sky-high on Sunday.
De Villiers, in particular, is fast running out of time to end his trophy drought.
De Villiers emphasised the importance of staying calm, while Kohli insisted India had not done much wrong against Sri Lanka.
But changes are almost certain regardless, with South Africa having struggled hugely against Imad Wasim in their last game. Ravichandran Ashwin sat out the two games against Asian opposition, but given how he’s troubled Hashim Amla in the past, he should be a certain starter.
It remains to be seen whether it’s one of the pace bowlers – likely to be Umesh Yadav – or Kedar Jadhav, who has not impressed in the field, that is benched to accommodate Ashwin.
Ravindra Jadeja was not a factor on a placid Oval pitch against Sri Lanka, but his past success against de Villiers should mean a spin-heavy approach from India in the middle overs.
India will not push any panic buttons on the batting front, having comfortably topped 300 in both games.
One area they may look at is the first Powerplay, where runs have merely been accumulated steadily. Kohli spoke after the Sri Lanka game of how the explosive approach wasn’t the Indian way.
With Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma having shared century stands in both matches, the Indian strategy of building to a frantic finish cannot be quibbled with. But in a time when even a score of 350 is no longer safe, a few extra runs against the new ball would not go amiss.
South Africa have not beaten India in three previous Champions Trophy games dating back to 2002.
On that occasion, the Proteas were cruising at 192 for 1 in pursuit of 262, with Herschelle Gibbs having made a sparkling 116. But when he went off with cramping arms, the inning unravelled and they fell 10 short of a place in the final.
Along with the Edgbaston debacle at the World Cup three years earlier, that was the game that led many to question South Africa’s big-game ticker. Subsequent results have done nothing to change that impression.
India, by contrast, tend to coast through the games between major tournaments.
Once there, they invariably know how to turn it on. Given the wealth of batting resources at South Africa’s disposal, and a bowling attack that has Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir, there will be no hint of complacency from Kohli’s team, but you sense that India’s big-game nous should see them through to the last four.
India trained under bright sunshine at the Oval, but should the rain reappear, it will be they that are the happier.
A no result on Sunday means their place in the last four is guaranteed, thanks to a better net run-rate.
West Indies at lowest ebb
How low can West Indies go? As the eight highest-ranked teams contest the Champions Trophy, the one-time buccaneers from the Caribbean are back home playing an ODI series against Afghanistan.
Outside the qualification places for the 2019 World Cup as well, the scale of the task in front of West Indies cricket was rudely illustrated on Friday as Rashid Khan’s leg-spin skittled them in the first game of the series.
Afghanistan, who will be dangerous floaters in the qualification tournament given the scale of their improvement, have already proved their prowess in the past against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
This, though, was their first victory against one of the established powers, though it is perhaps kind to describe West Indies in such terms these days.
Rashid did not even come on till the 23rd over, but it did not take him long to expose the weaknesses against the turning ball that go back even to the halcyon years of West Indies cricket.
Twice, he was on a hat-trick, and at one stage, his figures read 4-1. He finished with 7-18, with most batsmen having absolutely no clue about his beautifully disguised googly.
Bangladesh no longer misfits in ODIs
Bangladesh have shown that they are no longer misfits at this level. Having scored over 300 against England, the tournament favourites, they struggled against Australia’s formidable attack.
But confronted by New Zealand, a team that reached the World Cup final two years ago, they put in a fine display to give themselves a great chance of going further.
Not many games are won from 33-4. And the manner in which they did so was emphatic. After taking a few overs to size up the bowling, Shakib Al Hasan played one of the finest innings by a Bangladeshi batsman. Mahmudullah, dropped from the Test team in Sri Lanka and sent home not long ago, was no less dominant, and the result will be celebrated as much as the World Cup triumphs over England in 2011 and 2015.
After their run to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2015, Bangladesh have been formidable opposition on home turf. But these two victories over New Zealand, the first in Ireland in May, suggest that they now have the self-belief to take on the best sides in any conditions.
More than a decade ago, as Bangladesh cricket was treading water, one of the coaches told this correspondent about a young generation at the academy who he was convinced would go on to great things.
Shakib, Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and friends have not let him down.
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Updated: June 11, 2017 04:00 AM