FOR MUCH of the World Cup history, Australia have broken India’s hearts. A one-run defeat here in 1987, thrashings in the 2003 final and 2015 semifinal, hammering in the super-six game in 1999, the five-time world champions has been India’s biggest stumbling block in the prized tournament. But with a comprehensive exhibition of spin bowling and gritty batting from K L Rahul and Virat Kohli, India got off the blocks in the World Cup, beating Australia by six wickets.
The importance of winning the opening match could not be over-emphasized, more so against record champions Australia, who incidentally had not lost a World Cup opening match this century.
The win was also a vindication of India’s tactics and selection policies too — R Ashwin, a late but valuable addition to the team, produced a delightful exhibition of high-class spin bowling. It was a justification of the selectors’ faith in Rahul, returning from a thigh injury. In short, India ticked several boxes in this match —the seamers breathed aggression, spinners spat venom and batsmen showed the grit to pull India out of trouble after an early collapse. But for 10 minute of madness, India bossed Australia.
When Rahul walked into the middle to join Kohli, India were three wickets down for two runs. Silence engulfed Chepauk with plenty of anxious faces fearing for the worst. In the dressing room, Ravindra Jadeja later admitted, panic was setting in. The team is known to struggle if the top-order batsmen are dismissed early.
An already uphill task on a slow pitch had now turned into a stiff, uneasy climb. But with a 165-run partnership, Kohli and Rahul shut out the chase.
Rahul had just taken a shower and hoped for a breather, before he had to pad up. What unfolded was a classical recovery act, engineered by two of India’s finest batsmen. Kohli made the most of his reprieve, on 13, and composed an innings that presented his best virtues — his nerves of steel, his reading of the situation, his response to his opponents’ tactics.
Kohli showed why he is still India’s Man Friday in this format. His biggest strength in the format is how well he adjusts to the situations and takes these calculative risks. With the pressure on India, he took the responsibility to hand it back to Australia. His boundary, where he walked down the pitch and drove Josh Hazlewood, who had accounted for Rohit Sharma and Shreyas Iyer in the second over, was the best of the lot. Once he was offered life, Kohli was totally reborn as those tentative loose drives disappeared and the compactness returned.
The old master of chases was fully back. It was run-scoring at its risky-free best. He will bunt the ball down the ground, steer it to the third man, nudge the ball on the leg-side and hoard the runs. It was a show of grit rather than authority. Nothing bothered him, not the heat, the bowlers, or the pressure of winning the first match of the tournament. His advice to Rahul was simple. “Play it like Test cricket,” Rahul would later say.
At the other end, Rahul hardly seemed to break a sweat. Among batsmen from both teams, he looked the most comfortable on a surface that was relatively slower. Some balls gripped and turned too, besides movement for seamers with the new ball. Maybe, the hours behind the stumps got him a measure of the surface’s nature, especially the pace more than anyone else. Right from start, he batted smoothly, middling most of the balls, showing his adeptness in controlling the game’s tempo. He performed the duties of a classical No 5 batsman, lent support to the top-order batsman, Kohli here, let pressure not heap on him, and then guided the team to the shores of safety with a calm head. It is for these gifts that the team management persisted with him, despite the proneness to injuries.
In the four months he spent recovering from a thigh injury, India have been pinning all their middle-order hopes on him. Although his century against Pakistan in the Asia Cup showed signs of him coming back to form, this unbeaten knock was reassuring in so many ways. In a situation where even one bad shot could have ended up costing India the game, Rahul brought calmness.
But he and Kohli had to thank the spin trio of Ashwin, Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav for restricting Australia to 199. Ashwin unpacked his full bag of tricks, Yadav’s variations were unfathomable and Jadeja smartly mixed his pace, and spun the ball big and sharp to castle Steve Smith. From that juncture, Australia collapsed beyond recovery. Though India, too imploded, to their rescue came Kohli and Rahul.