The burden of expectation will be on India once again on Thursday when they take on the West Indies in Mumbai with a place in the final of the World T20 on the line. So far, though, India, and two team members in particular, have suggested that not even the most stressful of scenarios can faze them in the slightest.
For India’s cricket team, playing any match at home, in front of such a large, fervent and expectant fan base brings a level of pressure that may be unrivaled in all of sports. Playing a World Cup on home soil, then, only ratchets up the intensity to an almost unbearable level.
Fortunately for India, they have already flourished in such a setting. Five years ago, the team lifted the one-day World Cup on home soil in what was arguably the most glorious moment in the country’s proud cricket history. Most of the players from that triumph have gone, but two of the members who have remained have been key to India negotiating their way through choppy waters in the 20-over World Cup to make it to the final four.
Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, despite questions over his future last year, remains at the head of the team. And, while his explosive batting may have been dulled somewhat by age, his cool head has been vital. Never was that more evident than when faced with a perilous scenario against Bangladesh last week.
As bizarre as Bangladesh’s failure to win when needing just two wins off the final three balls was, Dhoni’s marshaling of his troops and then the decisive decision to run to the stumps for a run out on the final ball, rather than throw, was exemplary.
With the bat, though, there has only been star.
Having lost their opening game to New Zealand, India went into their second game with Pakistan with yet more pressure heaped onto an already red-hot clash with their fiercest rivals. Kohli, the 27-year-old with the world at his feet, didn’t bat an eyelid, firing 55 not out to lead his team to victory.
Even better was to come. Following the Dhoni-inspired heroics against Bangladesh came a winner-take-all contest for a place in the semifinals against Australia. Chasing 160, India appeared in big trouble at 49 for 3, particularly after Yuvraj Singh rolled his ankle and could only hobble between the wickets. But with Kohli there, the 26,000 in attendance knew their team remained in with a chance.
And they were about to witness one of the great T20 innings, one that Kohli would afterward suggest was perhaps his finest from an already impressive collection. His 82 not out from just 51 balls was extraordinary, and, fittingly, it was Dhoni who was there with him striking the winnings runs at the end.
“It virtually felt like you are out of the tournament at the end of 10 overs,” he told the Board of Control for Cricket in India afterward. “To pull the game back after that along with MS Dhoni—I don’t know how we did it. Even out there in the middle, I didn’t know how this was happening. I am just grateful that I was able to do it for the team.”
Kohli and Dhoni are likely to have to deliver again on Thursday, particularly with another veteran of the 2011 World Cup, Yuvraj, now ruled out with his ankle injury. And Kohli, in particular, will be fully aware of the danger that lurks within the opposition.
For the past five years Kohli has been teammates at Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League with West Indian Chris Gayle, the most famous and the most explosive batsman in cricket’s shortest format. Already in this tournament, the 36-year-old has blasted an unbeaten century from just 50 balls. And, having faced just two balls since that opening win over England, Gayle will be eager to make an impact on the big stage and in a country he knows well.
Prediction: Both teams rely heavily on their star men. For India, when Kohli has been dismissed early none of his teammates have been able to step up and fill the batting void. It is a similar case for the West Indies when Gayle doesn’t provide a bludgeoning start at the top of the innings. Broadening it out from those two, the match will be a contrast in styles, with the West Indies the T20 specialists who can beat any team on their day and also, as they showed last time out against Afghanistan, lose to anyone. India, meanwhile, are the more orthodox, and the more consistent. In what has all the ingredients to be an explosive clash, Ravichandran Ashwin’s previous success bowling to Gayle may just give the Indians the edge to celebrate a place in the final.
Match time: Thursday, 9:30 a.m. EDT