India vs Sri Lanka, World Cup 2019: Lasith Malinga test for Virat Kohli & Co. ahead of semis
Here we are then, on the verge of India’s final group game, which happens to be a warm-up match in disguise. Perhaps because Virat Kohli’s side has lost to England and not played New Zealand at this World Cup—one of the teams India is certain to meet in the semi-finals—a day to tune up may just have been the need of the hour; and it was delivered to them in the form of a contest against Sri Lanka in Leeds. A proper contest it could well be, given that it was here at Headingley that Dimuth Karunaratne’s men pulled off the upset of the tournament with a 20-run win against the hosts and pre-tournament favourites, England. That result, incidentally, cracked open a World Cup that had all but settled the top four sides by the 27th game itself, the hitherto shake-up then ensuring not all of the 18 group games from that point on were dead rubbers.
For that, the organisers have Lasith Malinga—who took four pivotal wickets in England’s top-three and Jos Buttler on that fateful day—to thank, for it was his arm that saved this tournament from drudgery and rendered only the final day of the group stage inconsequential. But if you really think about it, both the still-relevant teams playing on Saturday, India and Australia (who take on South Africa in Manchester), will do well to win their respective final game to avoid a resurgent England in the semis and rather face Kane Williamson’s New Zealand, who have now lost their last three matches on the bounce.
“I think at the back of our minds we do have the semi-final in mind—that’s a big game for us. For all the four teams that have qualified, that’s in the back of the mind,” said Dinesh Karthik, who addressed the press conference on the eve of the game. The honesty in the answer was refreshing, but Karthik has been around a very long time, so he knew enough to add: “Having said that, I think we’re professional enough to go out there against Sri Lanka and play a very clinical game.”
Against Bangladesh on Tuesday, Karthik at long last—16 years after he first played an ODI—made his World Cup debut, becoming the 15th player from this squad to feature in this tournament. Only Ravindra Jadeja, in the news for all the wrong reasons this week, and Mayank Agarwal, who joined the team in Leeds as the injured Vijay Shankar’s replacement, are yet to play a game.
When asked if the team management had plans to blood one of Jadeja or Agarwal (who is yet to make his ODI debut) in the last game that they can afford to tweak and test, Karthik claimed few members of the side are aware of team composition until the day of the game. But he did explain, with great eloquence, how players on the sidelines—such as himself until recently—prepare for a last-minute call-up into the playing eleven. “Every member in this side of 15 prepares for every game believing that he might play,” he said.
“So, basically, we treat practice sessions like we’re going to play in the eleven. That’s how we try and prepare, like we’re playing in the eleven,” said Karthik, who had spent 10 matches across two World Cup campaigns spread across 12 years preparing just as he described. “Only when they tell us, that’s when we know whether we’re playing or not; but up until then, we practice in such a manner that we can be ready.”
Doing just that and readying themselves at Headingley a day before the Lanka game were all of India’s heavyweights barring Rohit Sharma, whose delectable form with the bat – 544 runs including four centuries in eight outings -- seemingly needing no more fine-tuning. But the rest of them were here despite the practice session being optional, including captain Virat Kohli and wicketkeeper MS Dhoni, both of whom had a crack in the nets on either side of the hour-long session.
A lot has been said and written about Dhoni’s approach with the bat in this tournament. But he will perhaps remember that before he last faced Sri Lanka at a World Cup as well, in 2011, Dhoni was experiencing a forgettable run with the bat. And then came the final at Wankhede, where Dhoni played his legacy innings, World Cups or otherwise.