India began their World Cup in a delayed but ideal fashion. They ticked all the checkboxes on their way to victory against South Africa at the Rose Bowl in Southampton on Wednesday. Put to bowl first, Indian seamers took care of the South African top order. In the middle overs, the wrist-spin duo of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal executed the choke hold and picked up crucial wickets. With the bat, the top order remained reliable and the middle order chipped in for a six-wicket win, with 15 balls to spare.
The scorelines might make it look like it was a relatively close affair. But it wasn't. South Africa's 227 was always going to be below-par. In the end, India, cautious but determined, got there without many scares. What lacked in swagger was made up for in substance.
Here are the talking points from the game:
Jasprit Bumrah belongs at the top
Jasprit Bumrah is having the time of his life. He can't believe he's bowling at the World Cup, but he knows he deserves to be there. When he hops, skips and jumps into his action and lets his bionic arm do its thing, he knows he belongs there. Bumrah, simply put, is pound for pound the best all-format seamer in cricket right now. His unorthodox brilliance, the variety in his arsenal, the smile on his face, just everything about him exudes a calm reassurance. This guy has got it under control.
On his World Cup debut, Bumrah was unplayable. He launched an offensive against South African openers Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock and he won before the two even got time to set their eye in. He banged in fast, the ball shaping and angling away from the batter, tempting them to defend or drive. He got the edge off both Amla and de Kock collected at the slips. Yuzvendra Chahal was the chief tormentor later in the game, but it was Bumrah who set the table. After his fiery opening spell, South Africa never really recovered. And his World Cup has only started.
Yuzvendra Chahal shines
Wrist spinners, especially left arm wristspinners, have been talked about a lot going into this World Cup. But on Wednesday, it wasn’t Kuldeep Yadav who turned heads at the Rose Bowl. It was the unassuming, wiry guy who has stealthily slipped into this India XI and made himself indispensable. Yuzvendra Chahal almost became a Chess pro. He represented India in the World Youth Chess Championship in Greece in 2003. Then he quit to concentrate on his legbreak.
Virat Kohli had once said that he liked Chahal a lot because the guy never says no to anything. Ask him to bowl with the new ball, send him in to put the choke hold in the middle overs, he's game. Chahal is the team guy. Perhaps that is why he quit chess. He likes doing things for other people. He likes coming in and disrupting partnerships because his captain asked him to. He likes picking up a crucial wicket at the right time because his team needs him to. And even though he has left chess behind, he still has some tricks up his sleeve. Always second guessing his opponent, always thinking ahead, two moves, three moves, five. Ten. On Wednesday, Chahal wrecked the South African batting order. He bowled two ridiculous balls in over to get rid of Rassie van der Dussen and Faf du Plessis, leaving both of them embarrassed. He later broke up a David Miller and Andile Phehlukwayo partnership, leaving South Africa reeling.
The reliable Rohit Sharma
India’s famed top order is the foundation of the team. Perhaps that is why it’s often said that India rely a tad too much on them. That argument is further strengthened by India’s number 4 conundrum. In the lead up to the World Cup, Ambati Rayudu had been the guy in at number 4. But then the selectors opted for Vijay Shankar instead and a century in the warm up game handed the spot, for the time being, to KL Rahul in India’s World Cup opener. The middle order too has inconsistency issues. But in Southampton, Rohit Sharma showed, once again, how crucial it is for the team that the top order fires.
Sharma stood resolute to reach his 23rd ODI and second World Cup century, driving India to what was eventually a comfortable victory. He was so singularly focussed on the chase that he became the chase himself; a consistent spectre that hung over the South African bowling attack. Sharma only slipped up once, when David Miller dropped a sitter he skied off Kagiso Rabada. But it came so late in the game that by that time, his work was complete.
Sharma survived as if by some broad and deserved bit of fate accrued on the crease. Sharma's captain, after the game, called his innings his best in ODIs "by far". That it came in India's World Cup opener made it all the more important. His 122 off 144 also exhibited a calm that is not often seen in his usual explosion. Yes, when he gets going, Sharma could be the most devastating batters in the world. But at the core of that devastation is a batter of supreme quality, control and consistency.
More misery for South Africa
South Africa were missing Lungi Ndidi and Dale Steyn, but that barely begins to explain how average they were on Wednesday. Unsure, almost scared, with the bat; inconsistent with the ball; and hapless in the field. In fact they have looked that way throughout the World Cup. In a nightmare start they have lost their first three games at the tournament.
They have won the toss each time. After choosing to chase and failing twice, du Plessis elected to bat against India. But then his team went out and batted with barely any command and conviction. When they began their defence, Rabada started well. He sent Shikhar Dhawan packing soon and tested Kohli on every ball he faced. But the South Africans had nothing in reply to Sharma's brilliance.
In fact, they could look at his innings and see exactly what they have been missing this whole tournament. While the India opener looked in groove, South Africa have looked like round peg in a square hole. If they cannot effect a turnaround now, their tournament is over.
All parts working for India, for now
India's opening game at the World Cup took its time, but when it came it bore good news. They are still among the favourites to win it. The top order delivered, yet again. Seamers and spinners worked in tandem, took regular wickets and set up the road to the win. And valuable contributions from the middle order helped them over the mark.
It remains important that the middle order fires. KL Rahul impressed with his ton in the warm-up and got the nod ahead of Vijay Shankar for number 4. He displayed grit, despite failing to extend his studied start. MS Dhoni played his part perfectly and he remains the heart of that middle order. But bigger tests are yet to come.