Throughout the ICC Champions Trophy 2017, Virat Kohli had emphasised that each match was ‘just another game’. He had made the point about ‘staying relaxed’ every time, because in a tournament such as this, every game is a pressure game.
Until Sunday’s final at The Oval, his team had responded magnificently. On the biggest day, though, the bubble India had worked so hard to create around the team burst. There was nothing relaxed or clear-headed about the way India bowled and fielded in the final. It meant Pakistan ran away to a total of 338 for 4. India in turn was skittled for 158 in 30.3 overs to sink to a 180-run loss.
Forget for a moment the Jasprit Bumrah no-ball that reprieved Fakhar Zaman on three before the batsman went on to make 114. Even apart from that, Pakistan’s batting had Christmasy a feel, with free gifts being handed out liberally.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya were the only ones to emerge with credit. Pandya’s heroics with the bat shouldn’t obscure the fact that he had one of his best days with the ball before that. But the rest of the attack couldn’t find its collective radar. There were 13 wides and three no-balls. You can explain away inside-edges and balls hitting stumps but bails not falling off, umpires deciding against you on marginal calls et al with luck. You can’t put 16 extra runs given, plus 16 extra deliveries bowled, to luck. And for a team that has rightly prided itself on its fielding, you can’t explain away not a single direct hit for a run-out when plenty of chances were offered.
Since it is unlikely that the bowlers and fielders lost their skills overnight, the reasonable conclusion is that the big day eventually got to the team. Virat Kohli defended his team – as he should – and pointed to the legitimate fact that there were two teams competing, one of which was bound to lose. But he did concede that on the day, Pakistan had shown up better under pressure.
“Cricket is played between two teams,” he said. “So you have to accept losses, you have to accept that the other team has outplayed you and they've shown better skill than you, they've shown better composure in pressure situations than you. Yes, we have shown the composure in pressure situations most often in this tournament, but that is no guarantee that you're going to do it every time. Obviously your best effort is to try and do it every time, but cricket is not about doing well in every game that you play. You will have failures, and one team has to lose on the day, and today was our day to lose because the opposition played much better than us.”
Even Kohli, however, expressed annoyance with the extras conceded. “Never a good feeling to concede so many. That is something that we need to keep a check on,” he said. “You know, those things are something that are controllable. A guy hitting a good shot is something that after a stage is not in your control, you've already bowled the ball. But conceding extras is something that we can control as a team, 25 extras is a bit too much in a game like that, and that's something that we certainly need to take care of in the future.”
The failure in the final was a collective one by batsman and bowlers. But going into the final, it was known that Pakistan’s stronger suit was its bowling rather than its batting. So India’s batsmen were up against something hot, while its bowlers had the easier challenge. But there was a lack of bowling discipline, as evidenced not just by the extras but by how often they strayed on the pads to be picked off, or bowled too short for the ball to sit up, or gave too much room for a freeing of arms.
“A guy like Zaman, when he gets going, it becomes really difficult to stop them because I think 80% of his shots were high-risk and they were all coming off,” explained Kohli of Fakhar’s unorthodox attack that threw his bowlers off. “You can only do so much. Sometimes you have to sit and say, the guy is good enough on the day to tackle anything. Our control becomes very little when people are going well like that, and we certainly tried to make them hit in areas that we felt it would be uncomfortable, but we just didn't have anything going our way in that partnership. Yes, they opened it up a little bit, but they kept going positive, which was something that could have upset the lines and lengths of the bowlers. We tried our best to hit good areas, as I said, but they just batted really well today.”
India’s spinners had a particularly bad day. R Ashwin went for 70 runs in 10 overs, Ravindra Jadeja was taken for 67 in eight. It ended a fairly bleak tournament for India’s primary spinners, but if there were any thoughts about bringing in the likes of Yuzvendra Chahal or Kuldeep Yadav, they were kept at bay by Kohli.
“Every spinner has challenges on flat decks,” he held. “You can't really sit and pinpoint these things in white ball cricket, especially on wickets like these where if a batsman gets going, it really becomes difficult for the spinner. People are slogging across the line and getting away with it. You can't really do much as a spinner because you're making them play where you want to play, but still, they are executing those shots. There's only so much you can do as a bowler, I feel, watching from the sideline, and then you have to accept that, yes, this was a high-risk shot and I can accept getting hit for four on a shot like that. It's not humanly possible to not concede boundaries and sixes. You have to understand whether you made the batsman hit where you wanted him to hit and take a risk, or you have bowled a bad ball. I think that's the only analysis a person needs to do and nothing more.”
Kohli was right insofar as India being light years away from hitting the panic button. After all, the team did just reach the final of a tournament that’s even more ruthless than an ICC Cricket World Cup and gives you no second chances, and was the favourite to win it because of the way the players had played. But keeping the long term in mind, and the fact that the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 will also be in England, India might want to look at which combination works best. It may not necessarily be similar to the one that made it to the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 final.