MELBOURNE: The batting nets area at the MCG is one of a kind: open to the public and visible from the street, it is a deep-set arena accessible from a level lower to the ground.
Once the players are in it, they are caged in. And if that team happens to be India, you can bet the cricketers will be surrounded by hundreds of screaming fans jostling for attention and a glimpse of their favourite stars.
Add a couple dozen journalists, youtubers and cricket enthusiasts to the mix and suddenly practice is elevated to performance art. Every move is scrutinized. Every bad shot is greeted with howls. Inside the MCG nets, there is no place to hide.
Saturday happened to be Virat Kohli’s birthday, and Melbourne’s teen diaspora came out in droves to pay him a visit. Some had lunch boxes in tow, fully prepared for a long vigil. As Virat batted, chants of ‘Happy Birthday dear Virat’ rang out time and again, to shouts and cheers and some enthusiastic clapping. Kohli acknowledged the fans once or twice, raising his hand or glancing at a particularly vocal bunch, but there were simply too many of them. Instead, Virat did what he seldom does at nets: once in a while, he would oblige the ubiquitous “we-want-sixer” crowd with a particularly fearsome hit, much to everyone’s delight.
Virat, having cut cake in the morning with his team members, and cut a second one with media personnel later on at the ground, will know the icing awaits around the corner: India need a win against Zimbabwe here on Sunday to progress to the semi-finals, and Rohit Sharma and Co. will be hoping Kohli’s love affair at the MCG will continue.
A washout and split points too will mean India advancing, but messy equations are best avoided.
It was against Pakistan here that India’s star batter came out all guns blazing, playing a special knock to announce his intentions in this World Cup. It will be a shame if the tournament’s most prolific, and most popular, cricketer is not around for the final at the MCG on November 13.
That is, however, jumping the gun. For now, the Zimbabwe hurdle needs to be crossed. In normal circumstances, beating Zimbabwe wouldn’t be such a bothersome task, but this is T20, the stakes are the highest as the World Cup nears the business end, and Zimbabwe have built somewhat of a reputation for upsetting the apple cart in this tournament. Having escaped once from jail already against Bangladesh, India will want to be ruthless here.
Asked what sort of approach India had in mind for this potential banana-skin encounter, spinner Ravichandran Ashwin said, “Simple. We need to be clinical, as clinical as possible. We know no team is a pushover. You still have to go in there, counter the early pace with the bat and still bowl good balls to be able to generate pressure.
“It’s a must-win contest. Good teams will be clinical and will put the pressure on such days. Zimbabwe have played some wonderful cricket, so we can’t go in there and expect them to crumble.”
To beef up the batting on the pacy MCG, will India again tinker with the combination and give Deepak Hooda a game? That is the only remaining piece of the puzzle as India press the reset button here before the bigger challenges in the knockout stages.
Zimbabwe have already caused a big upset, beating Pakistan and coming oh-so-close against Bangladesh before inexplicably losing to the Netherlands to wreck their own chances. “We’ve been quite fragile with our batting throughout this tournament,” their coach Dave Houghton had said after the loss to the Dutch. “It has been our bowling and our fielding that has kept us in.”
Captain Craig Ervine acknowledged Sikander Raza would have to score a lion’s share of the runs. “It’s such a quick turnaround in this tournament. The loss to Bangladesh was very disappointing, to come so close. . . you sort of sit back and think, maybe we were destined not to win that game,” Ervine said.
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“Sikandar Raza has been exceptional and we’re going to need that sort of performances against India. The win against Pakistan has given us belief that we can beat any side in this tournament.”
Of course, there’s the chance to bag Virat Kohli’s wicket too! “How often do you get the opportunity to put Virat Kohli in your pocket? I’m pretty sure our fast bowlers will be raring to go tomorrow.”