2nd semifinal, Sydney Cricket Ground
Four years ago at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad, Yuvraj Singh screeched to a halt in the middle of the pitch, brandishing his bat like a sword as he hit the winning runs off a bleeding Brett Lee. Australia bled that day, amidst thousands of Indian home fans, losing their first knockout match since 1996. They were out, India were in.
On Thursday, this time led by Michael Clarke, Australia returns to face Dhoni-led India in another knockout match. The stakes, arguably, are higher. The World Cup final is closer to each team. Once again though, Clarke and his men may find themselves amidst thousands of screaming Indian fans. In their own country. In Sydney. On a pitch they aren’t sure of. Not much has changed. It’ll be difficult to tell who the home team is.
One thing they know for sure: India isn’t the same team that lost to them thrice in the buildup to this tournament. India is possibly the same team that won that knockout match four years ago, and two more matches after that to lift the trophy.
This is the biggest match of World Cup 2015. This is India v/s Australia.
7 matches on the trot, and two more to win. New Zealand, who has won 8 on their thrilling path to the final, are waiting. If the two host nations face off, it still won’t be a disappointing campaign for the Indians. However, the same could have been said of their 2014 World T20 campaign. They looked near unbeatable, and entered the final versus Sri Lanka as favorites, and were yet to lose a game. They lost, and India fell short of becoming the only double T20 World Champion. Their Champion’s Trophy in 2013 was similar too—they were unbeaten throughout. This is a good omen. There is no such thing as peaking early for this team. They’d rather ride the momentum to the end than get their ‘loss’ of the way early like South Africa did. 4 out of the top 5 – Rohit, Dhawan, Kohli and Raina – have gotten centuries. Rahane has looked good, while Dhoni knows his role all too well. Jadeja got a good hit against Bangladesh. Ashwin has looked unplayable at times. Shami and Yadav have matched Boult and Southee wicket to wicket. Mohit Sharma has been the joker in the pack. There is no weak link anymore. Unless one considers, facing a weak team like Bangladesh in the knockout as a false dawn. It was an easy team to draw, but India earned it. Each player stood up, and it’s now time for all of them to stand up together. Against their toughest rival. It’s make-or-break time.
X-Factor: Rohit Sharma. If India want to set a good total, they will depend on Rohit coming through the tough initial overs and setting himself up for his monstrous slog-over bashing in the end.
One weakness: No specialist spinner. On a turning pitch in Sydney. Maxwell isn’t enough. Will they pick Doherty? He is in the squad for a reason, but Clarke could take the call on the morning itself. Finch has been off the boil after demolishing England, Warner hasn’t got a 50 other than his 179, and Clarke is yet to hit his straps with the bat. Smith looks assured, and will lick his lips at the prospect of facing his favorite bunch of bowlers again. Watson is back in form too, and Maxwell has been lethal, and will await his battle with Ashwin again. Faulkner is yet to play a significant hand, and it could again be a toss-up between Cummins or Hazlewood to join Starc and Johnson. Even Doherty could be part of this mix. Unless Australia again decide to go in with their strength: raw pace. They will not want to lose to India in their most important match yet, after winning all summer.
X-factor: Glenn Maxwell. Everyone knows why.
Tough to call. On form, it could be India. On paper, it’s Australia. But then, as we’ve seen in the semifinal between New Zealand and South Africa, stranger things can happen.
India to win, then.