England have played, won and lost. South Africa have played and lost twice. Pakistan have played twice, been thrashed once and then — surprise surprise — shocked the hosts, the world’s best ODI team, at their unbreached fortress to take a win.
We are one week into the 2019 ICC World Cup and of the ten teams participating only one — run by the richest, most powerful board of all — has not yet turned up for a game. Like the ever obedient schoolboy, they have patiently sat around waiting for their turn to play. And of course it is them everyone is looking forward to the most.
Much of this wait is, of course, self inflicted. The Justice RM Lodha Commission’s reforms recommended that players kitting up for the national team should be given a 15-day break from the end of the Indian Premier League (IPL) to their next international assignment. Since the IPL ended on May 12, basic math suggests they were ready to hit the ground in time for a dream World Cup opener against England (a tie that would have really suited the occasion). But, as a colleague pointed out, perhaps weekends don’t count. And it helps the math add up.
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But logic still fails. The Lodha Commision was set up to reform Indian cricket, and its recommendations were provided as a guideline for the BCCI to help its functioning in a transparent manner. This wasn’t a guideline for the ICC to adhere to. And yet, they have to, and they do. The international caretakers of the game are, after all, chaplains of India’s management. And for India’s management, rules and reforms are per convenience.
Fittingly, two days, before their opening fixture against South Africa, the team management have bared their World Cup claws. The battle lines have been drawn. Their opponents? The media brigade that has accompanied them to England for the World Cup.
The team management’s attitude towards the home media contingent has bordered on cordial to barely available, and in a throwback to the 2015 World Cup — when even the basic question thrown the way of MS Dhoni came back with an answer worth a thousand memes and all player interviews were handed out to the BCCI website — they decided to make available exactly zero players of the World Cup squad for the media brigade to question.
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And, the media contingent responded with a thrilling, collective launch of the protest finger, admonishing those in charge of sabotaging their jobs. A mass walkout followed. Indian cricket journalists protesting against Indian cricket management. This, of course, is a story and a match that is still in its initial overs of play. Somehow, though, we know how it will end.
Enough conjecture though. With one day to go before Virat Kohli and gang kit up to face South Africa, the burning questions all remain to be answered. Will KL Rahul finally justify the faith shown to him by his captain? Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav? And, the biggest question of all: Kedar Jadhav or Vijay Shankar?
It will suffice to say that India aren’t the ones who will go into this encounter under pressure. South Africa have lost both of their contest so far, and have lost both comfortably. Dale Steyn’s participation in this World Cup has been ruled out and Beuran Hendricks has been called in as replacement. Faf Du Plessis’ nightmares were made of this. For his part, Du Plessis has chosen obliquely to blame Steyn’s IPL participation for the situation. Add more problems: Lungi Ngidi is injured and Hashim Amla is still displaying symptoms of concussion. With luck so bad and form so dismal, the Proteas will be glad if rain doesn’t do them in at Southampton.
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There is a reason why South Africa haven’t held the ‘dark horses’ tag this summer. Faf du Plessis’ rugged handsomeness cannot hide the obvious flaws in their squad. But funnily enough not many are talking up India either.
It is weird to find our South Asian heroes not listed among the favourites anywhere in the international media. That tag goes to England and (in the case of some pessimistic newspapers) to Australia. Virat Kohli has been pitched as the most probable to get the Best Player of the Tournament award by many, and without fail many have extolled the virtues of Jasprit Bumrah’s limited overs brilliance. But, as a team, for some reason, India don’t make the favourites. Or even the dark horses. To qualify for the latter perhaps you need a board with lower budgets.
Just as well. A silent march to the semis may be the best way to do it.
But silent marches aren’t this Indian team’s way. And definitely not their captain’s way. Everyone knows — even if they whisper it — that Kohli is in the prime of his career. His 2019 campaign, even without having started yet, is Sachin in 2003. The glaring differences being that Kohli is surrounded by rich experience, young talent and explosive unpredictability. He is also the captain of this ship.
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Small steps first, though. South Africa at Southampton will suffice. No matter the Proteas’ troubles, they will perhaps have an extra edge for this encounter. A third straight loss would make their path to the semifinals much much more complicated — although the format’s brilliance is that six consecutive wins would also be enough. And while they may have lost two of their bowling linchpins, Kagiso Rabada is still around. And as much as Kohli loves to fight with fire, Rabada does too.
One way or another, there is much to look forward to. And India — disregarding those foreign scribes — start favourites. God seems to thinks so.
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