On a day when the only sprinkle of yellow shirts in the stands, amid the ocean of blue, were fans in Chennai Super Kings kits, India’s opening batsmen walked out to bat. This was the Oval cricket ground in London, but it could well have been the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai; the 11 Australians on the field will certainly vouch for that. The sounds, the vibrations, and most essentially even the pitch, were reminiscent of a ground in India. And here, as a crisp sun shone, the Indian top-order made runs.
Lots and lots of runs—352 of them, India’s third highest team score at a World Cup. Virat Kohli (who had chosen to bat at the toss) scored 82, his first score of over fifty during this World Cup tour, including the warm-up games. Rohit Sharma looked good for his second straight hundred when he dismissed himself for 57. And even Hardik Pandya, promoted to No.4 to up the run rate, slapped the ball often into the rapturous terraces as he raced to a 27-ball 48.
But the man of the morning—and match—was Shikhar Dhawan, a batting-wicket beast who often tends to turn into a ten-headed monster during ICC’s major tournaments. In a match where six batsmen across the board got to a half-century (and eight above 40), Dhawan was the only centurion. In the end, Australia’s contextually narrow, 36-run loss came down to them not having a triple-figure individual score as well in their side.
On Sunday, the contest was a close one on the flattest wicket produced by the Oval in this World Cup. And both innings were eerily similar, what with the best fast bowlers in this World Cup, Mitchell Starc and Jasprit Bumrah, going for runs (74 and 61, respectively) and almost every specialist batsman who batted on either side kicking off to a solid start.
While Bhuvneshwar Kumar officially put this game to bed in the 40th over (they were 2 runs ahead of India at the same stage of the game), when he dismissed Steve Smith on 69 and all-rounder Marcus Stoinis on zero in the space of three balls, it was Dhawan who ensured with his essay that Australia had a little too much to chase during the dregs of this match.
For a man who wasn’t among the runs until Sunday, and Dhawan almost never is in the lead-up to a big event (he scored 8 in the opening game, and 2 and 1 in the warm-ups), it began with a struggle. When he was still in single digits, and he was in single digits for a while, Australia’s mighty quicks Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins had the left-handed batsman dancing this way and that for a while.
In the fourth over of the game, Starc ran in from the Vauxhall End and bounced Dhawan with a ball whose speed soared past the 90mph mark, and somehow Dhawan swayed out of the way. Next ball, with the batsman planted deep in the crease, Starc shot in a yorker and even Dhawan didn’t know how he dug it out, his head turning about immediately to see if his stumps had been rearranged.
The sixth over, bowled by Cummins, started in a similar fashion. One short ball followed another and the second one squared Dhawan up, marginally missing his outside edge on the way to the wicketkeeper. Yet another bouncer, the third in a row now from Cummins, had him defending ugly. All this short stuff, from both Starc and Cummins, were in line with the stumps and had kept Dhawan quiet and sweating. So, when Cummins missed his line next ball and directed yet another short one wide of Dhawan’s off stump, he slashed at it and the ball screeched away for his first boundary.
When Dhawan strikes form he tends to be very strong square of the wicket, as even his drives are directed more towards point than the cover region. But you can really tell he is ready for big runs when he begins to cut and pull at will. This began in the over after Cummins, when Nathan Coulter-Nile was introduced into the attack, and there was no turning back for Dhawan after that.
Coulter-Nile is perhaps the weakest link of Australia’s bowling attack, but simply had to play this match after his bat had rescued them against West Indies. With the ball, however, Coulter-Nile was hit for 70 runs against West Indies and it was not any better on Sunday. His first over went for 14 runs after Dhawan twice cut him for four past point. He had by then gained enough confidence to charge Coulter-Nile and hit a third boundary straight down the ground.
With Coulter-Nile and the leg-spinner Adam Zampa getting hit for a couple of big overs in the second powerplay, Australia captain Aaron Finch was forced to bring his strike bowlers back in the middle orders. Australia would pay heavily for this at the death, with India scoring 116 runs in the last 10 overs—only half of them bowled by the combo of Starc and Cummins.
Back to Dhawan. Along with Sharma (he did get a fifty, but it was an unusual innings where he struck his first boundary off the 30th ball he faced and hit only three more) the openers brought up their 16th hundred-run stand at the end of the 19th over. Sharma perished soon after, but Dhawan pushed on, charging into the nineties with an under-edged ramp off Cummins in the 29th over. Three overs later, he pressed the ball to mid-off and looked to get his 100th run, nearly causing the run out of Kohli.
They ran off the ricocheting overthrow anyway, and Dhawan had to wait until the third umpire deemed Kohli safe before he could spread his arms apart (like he does with a bat in one hand and helmet in the other) and grin towards the dressing room for the second time at a World Cup, and fifth time in an ICC tournament.