Someone called journalism “literature in a hurry” — but they were talking of your regular news stories. When it comes to sports, particularly match reports, journalism is a high-wire act while on speed, where you write in the moment and hope that somehow, when the last ball is bowled, the tenor of what you have written is consonant with the eventual outcome. The best way to illustrate that? Here, my draft report on the India-New Zealand semifinal, up until the rain interruption — with some thoughts appended at the end:

The New Zealand Innings: At home to the West Indies in 1983, then captain Sunil Gavaskar – by then fed up of battling the Caribbean pace battery – dropped himself to number four for the Chennai Test.

Malcolm Marshall blasted out opener Anshuman Gaekwad and number three Dilip Vengsarkar for ducks inside the first three balls. “Man,” snarked Viv Richards, lounging in the slips as Gavaskar took guard, “it doesn’t matter where you come in to bat, the score is still zero.”

Kane Williamson will sympathize. In the last seven games, he has faced the second ball of the innings twice; he has come in to bat in the first or second over four times; he has walked in to single digit scores five times. Here, he came in to face the 17th ball of the innings, with the score 1 for 1.

Psephologists during elections, and former cricketers before the toss, are providers of unintentional comedy. “Flat, hard pitch, dried grass rolled in, very good for batting, win the toss and bat first,” was the unanimous verdict on the new pitch in use for this game. On a cold day at an Old Trafford ground wearing dark clouds like a fashion accessory, it took Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar an over each to mock that assessment. The former got pace and away movement; the latter got swing both ways.

Between them, they bowled 16 deliveries, and Bumrah made one seam away and lift to find Guptill’s edge for a superb second slip catch by Virat Kohli, before the Kiwis managed to put a run on the board. Their combined first spell read 9-2-23-1; the Kiwis managed a mere 27/1 in the first powerplay – the lowest thus far in this tournament, beating India’s dubious record of 28/1 against England. And all of that was just the prologue to the period that defined the Kiwi innings.

Hardik Pandya came on in the 10th over; Ravindra Jadeja in the 11th. At the end of 9 overs when the opening quicks were done, Williamson was 12 off 21 and Henry Nicholls 10 off 19. Pandya began showing signs of an abductor adductor strain during the fourth over of his spell and hobbled off for treatment at the end of it – and, in the process, underlined the folly of India continuing to go into games with just five bowlers and no cover for injury or an off day.

Jadeja is the Swiss Army knife of Indian cricket – a multi-use tool we, enamored of superstars with bat and ball, forget until moments of crisis. Put him on the park, though, and he brings subtle changes to how the team plays. When, for instance, Pandya was limping through an over and just putting the ball there and thereabouts, Jadeja twice produced diving stops to cut off certain fours and even came within a coat of varnish of running out Williamson.

Then, in the 5th over of his spell, he showed why he is a must-pick. Having sussed Nicholls out, Jadeja flighted one on length on a middle and leg line with the pace taken off; the ball spun in through the gate to hit middle stump, and ended a reviving 68-run partnership off 89 balls.

That was the first ball of the 19th over – but the key to the latter part of the Kiwi innings was the last ball of that same over. It started out as nothing particularly special: mildly flighted, on line of off. Williamson played what seemed a competent defensive stroke. The ball hit the deck, gripped, bit, and turned square thanks to the vicious rip the bowler had given it.

Williamson looked startled; at the opposite end Ross Taylor, new to the crease, had a “What fresh hell is this?” look on his face. And largely as a result of that scare, the batsmen lapsed into the sort of coma numbers can quantify, but words can’t quite capture. Some numbers:

Williamson, with some help from a Chahal misfield, took four to third man off the last ball of the 14th over. The next four came 81 balls later, off the 3rd ball of the 28th, with a Williamson slog-sweep off Chahal. One more: Williamson – one of the premier batsmen in the modern game – was 31 off 45 when Nicholls fell; the next 25 balls he faced produced just 8 runs before he hit that uncharacteristic slog sweep to try and break out of jail.

The off-form Ross Taylor was, if anything, even more becalmed. At the end of the 35th over, he had managed a mere 24 off 51 deliveries. And it was not about the runs so much as the manner of his play; he was repeatedly beaten, by spin and pace, off outside and inside edges; to the short ball he kept trying to hook or pull and mishit every single time, with the ball just eluding fielders.

There is the story of England batsman Robin Smith touring Australia and, in a Test, being all at sea against the quicks. After one particularly torrid over from Merv Hughes, of the bristling moustache and in-your-face aggro, the bowler went up to Smith on the follow through and said, helpfully: “If you turn the bat over, mate, you’ll find the instructions on the other side.”

Williamson and Taylor batted as though they had somehow misplaced the instruction manual. Between overs 19, when Nicholls was out, and 34, the Kiwis managed to add just 52 runs off the bat off 93 balls (Williamson 29 off 44; Taylor 23 off 49). And Jadeja buttoned one end down throughout this period — his first nine overs produced a mere 26 runs.

The Kiwi batsmen deserve a soupcon of credit for figuring out that the wicket wasn’t the road the TV cheerleaders suggested at the toss, and for being willing to prioritize crease adhesion despite a scoring rate that would have shamed the teams that played the inaugural World Cup.

The Kiwis needed runs, though, and with Taylor misfiring spectacularly, Williamson had to go against his anchoring instinct and be the one to provide a semblance of acceleration. In Jadeja’s last over, the 35th, he thumped the spinner inside out to deep cover; then muscled one through midwicket, came within a toucher of being stumped, and off the last ball of the over, tried to step away and hit behind point only to see the ball miss the top of middle by the proverbial coat of paint. Clearly the pressure was on, and two balls after that near miss, the Kiwi skipper succumbed, trying to carve Chahal over the off side and slicing it to – but of course — Jadeja at point.

The Kiwis promoted first Neesham, then de Grandhomme, to try and get some momentum going. Neesham took a four off Pandya – who by then had been patched up by physio Patrick Farhart and who was focused on somehow finishing his quota – and then attempted an encore for Dinesh Karthik to take a steepling edge. de Grandhomme, who seemed to be timing well, needlessly got cute with a Bhuvi Kumar slow bouncer and ran it off his bat into Dhoni’s lap.

When rain forced the players off in the 47th over, the Kiwis were 211/5. And the only statistic worth mentioning was that at that point, an incredible 153 deliveries – 25.3 overs – had not been scored off.

Also worth pointing out: an erratic Chahal and an unfit Pandya had a combined analysis of 20-0-118-2; 11 of the 15 fours in the Kiwi innings at that point came off those two bowlers, as did the solitary six. Against this, the other three had a combined 26.1-2-89-3, and gave away just four fours.

******

So that is the draft, thus far. So what is the problem? This: The writing is uncomplimentary about the Kiwi batting, but perspective could change radically once India bats on this strip. What is clear is that this is by no means a 300+ wicket; what is unclear is what exactly it is doing, how it is behaving, and what therefore is par.

If par is 250 — which, frankly, seemed to me likely by the time the Kiwis had limped to 113/2 at the end of 30 overs — then it will turn out that Williamson and Taylor have actually batted superbly given the conditions; that they read the pitch right and decided to take the game as deep as they could, even if only at a crawl.

And the whole damn draft has to then be rewritten. A lazy lunge by Rohit Sharma at mid off resulting in a missed catch off Taylor (now unbeaten on 67), a few fumbles in the outfield with Chahal being a prime offender, and one Keystone Kops moment when Chahal threw to Dhoni from third man, the keeper muffed the take, an angry Kohli at midwicket covered up and flashed in a throw out of frustration, the whole ending with three runs given where there was only a tight single — all of that will assume greater significance where, at this point, they don’t given the low Kiwi total.

So what next? If play can resume by 11 PM IST, India will come out to chase a Duckworth-Lewis target over 20 overs under overcast conditions and on a pitch with swing, seam and turn, plus a bit of spice from all the moisture around. If it cannot resume by 11 PM, then everyone comes back tomorrow and we pick up where we left off, with the Kiwis having to bat out the remaining overs before India has its chance. On balance (I am writing this at 9.45 PM) I don’t think the game can restart — the ground staff needs an hour to get the ground ready, and they can start only once the rain stops. Which it hasn’t.

Tomorrow can get even trickier for India. The weather forecast is for more rain. So, assume the game resumes, and the Kiwis make say another 10, 12 runs, whatever. India will then have to negotiate the likes of Trent Boult and Lockie Ferguson in overcast conditions on a spiced pitch. That is the first problem. The second is, with more rain forecast, India’s sights have to be first fixed on the DLS requirement at the end of 20 overs.

As of this moment, India has to get 70 146 runs in 20 overs — which can be stiff enough, without factoring in a wicket that will aid seam and swing and spin, and a bowling side that will operate in conditions just like back home. Lose a wicket, and that target goes up, in increments for every wicket lost (which means you just can’t hit your way out of this corner).

It’s all boiling over quite nicely, with a surface coating of irony: Rain washed out the game between these two sides in the round robin stage when the odds were on India to win; in retrospect, if that game had happened and India had won, the Kiwis might not have made it to the last four, losing out to Pakistan on NRR. And now it turns out that rain just might be the Kiwis’ ally one more time, and India could pay the price.

More tomorrow after the game.

 

 

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