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-seated arena accessible from a level lower on the ground.
Once the players are in it, they are caged. And if that team is India, you can bet the cricketers will be surrounded by hundreds of screaming fans looking for attention and a glimpse of their favorite stars.
Add a few 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 was fortuitous Virat Kohli’s birthday, and Melbourne’s teenage diaspora came out in droves to visit him. Some had lunch boxes in tow, fully prepared for a long vigil. As Virat batted, chants of ‘Happy Birthday dear Virat’ rang out again and again, to shouts and cheers and some enthusiastic clapping. Kohli acknowledged the fans once or twice, raised his hand or looked at a particularly vocal bunch, but there were simply too many of them. Instead, Virat did what he rarely does at the nets: occasionally he would oblige the ubiquitous “we-want-sixes” crowd with a particularly fearsome hit, much to everyone’s delight.
Virat, having cut a cake with his teammates in the morning and a second one with media personnel at the ground later, will know the icing is just around the corner: India need a win against Zimbabwe on Sunday to progress to the semis. progress -final, and Rohit Sharma and Co. will be hoping that Kohli’s love affair at the MCG continues.
A washout and split points would also mean India progress, but messy comparisons are best avoided.
It was against Pakistan here that India’s star batsman came out guns blazing and played a special knock to announce his intentions in this World Cup. It would be a shame if the tournament’s most prolific and popular cricketer is not around for the final at the MCG on November 13.
However, this is jumping the gun. For now, the Zimbabwe barrier must be crossed. In normal circumstances, beating Zimbabwe would not be such a difficult task, but this being T20, the stakes are highest as the World Cup approaches the business end, and Zimbabwe have built something of a reputation for upset the apple cart in this tournament. . Having already escaped from jail once against Bangladesh, India will want to be ruthless here.
Asked what kind of approach India has in mind for this potential banana skin encounter, spinner Ravichandran Ashwin said: “Simple. We have to be clinical, as clinical as possible. We know no team is a pushover. You still have to going in there, countering the early pace with the bat and still bowling good balls to generate pressure.
“It’s a must-win competition. Good teams will be clinical and will apply the pressure on days like this. Zimbabwe have played some great cricket so we can’t go in there and expect them to crumble.”
Will India tinker with the combination again and give Deepak Hooda a game to strengthen the batting on the fast MCG? This is the only remaining piece of the puzzle as India hit the reset button here ahead of the bigger challenges in the knockout stages.
Zimbabwe had already caused a major upset by beating Pakistan and coming oh-so-close against Bangladesh before inexplicably losing to the Netherlands to ruin their own chances. “We were quite fragile with our batting during this tournament,” their coach Dave Houghton said after the loss to the Dutch. “It was our bowling and our fielding that held us back.”
Captain Craig Ervine admitted Sikander Raza would have to score a lion’s share of the runs. “It’s such a quick turnaround in this tournament. The loss against Bangladesh was very disappointing, to come so close. . . you kind of sit back and think, maybe we were destined not to win that game,” Ervine said.
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“Sikandar Raza was exceptional and we will need those kind of performances against India. The win against Pakistan gave us the belief that we can beat any team in this tournament.”
Of course, there is the chance to drop Virat Kohli’s wicket too! “How often do you get the opportunity to pocket Virat Kohli? I’m pretty sure our fast bowlers will be raring to go tomorrow.”