The scare that India got in their first World Cup game against Australia at Chennai prompted the Indian team management to opt for a sluggish pitch for the final in Ahmedabad. However, this would prove to be the home team’s folly as Australia was able to break India’s unbeaten 10-win streak.
In India’s opening game of the World Cup, Aussie pacers Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc had reduced the hosts to 2/3. And had Mitchell Marsh pouched Virat Kohli’s skier off a Hazlewood ball soon afterwards, it would have been 20/4. The Australians were defending only 199 and the fielding lapse turned out to be terminal. India would go on to win the game easily but the scars of the trip to Chennai stayed.
The Indian Express had learnt that ahead of the final, the Indian think tank was worried that if the Aussie pacemen could give them a bloody nose on a spinner’s paradise at Chepauk, the consequences could be far worse if the conditions were even slightly in their favour in the final.
That was the reason the Indian team management opted for the pitch that was used for the Pakistan game. That slow surface was as un-Australian as possible. Besides aiding their spinners, the pitch minus pace helped skipper Rohit Sharma in taking the attack to the opposition during the first Powerplay. With the surfaces not yielding much pace or movement to the seamers, Rohit could afford to hit through the line, and even step down the track to disturb the bowlers’ length. The fast starts he provided allowed the later batsmen to settle in without worrying too much about the run rate. Even in the final, Rohit was the main reason India reached 80 after the first 10 overs, even though they lost three wickets in the process.
But the tactic would backfire and India played right into the Aussie hands. The track became too sluggish for India’s liking, their batsmen struggling to find any sort of rhythm in the afternoon against the assortment of cutters, slower balls, off-pace bouncers and hard-length balls, while becoming much better to bat on under lights. Under the sun, the Virat Kohli-KL Rahul partnership had far tougher conditions to face as compared to the time when Travis Head and Manus Labuschagne milked the Indian bowling in the evening.
The Australians seemed to know what type of pitch would be on offer and were well prepared for the challenge. The home team, on the other hand, seemed surprised and out of sync with the kind of pitch on which they had been bred from an early age.
India got pitches that suited their strength throughout the World Cup. It worked perfectly for a month and a half – all parts of the Indian cricketing ecosystem seemingly pulling in one direction – before backfiring spectacularly against the supremely-determined and prepared Australians in the biggest match of them all.
It showed in India’s itinerary as well as the hosts played their league games against Australia, England, Pakistan and South Africa on the spin-friendly surfaces of Chennai, Lucknow, Ahmedabad and Kolkata, while the Sri Lankans, who didn’t have too strong a seam attack, were sent to Mumbai, where the twilight hour made batting a hazardous exercise.
It was a common sight at every venue to see head coach Rahul Dravid examining the pitch closely, with reports of the team management’s demands regarding every playing surface coming out in public domain.
According to Daily Mail, the ICC’s chief pitch consultant Andy Atkinson was virtually sidelined from the process at venues where the hosts were to play and wrote to the world body wondering whether the pitch for the India-New Zealand semifinal at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium was the best choice after the track was switched just days before the game.
After the Chennai game against Australia, the home team went from strength to strength, looking unbeatable and unstoppable, but when their opponents in the final were confirmed, their anxieties came to the fore.
The Aussies were much smarter and more resourceful than the Indians imagined, morphing into whatever shape they needed to take as per requirement while exposing the weaknesses in the Indian runaway train that had been papered over during their unbeaten run – lack of batting depth, dependence on a few players to lead the way, and inability to adapt to changing conditions.