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Great expectations 

Manchester, July 8

Virat Kohli smiles and smiles and says the right thing. He seems to have put up a mask of imperturbability — it must be an act, surely, for isn’t he always wildly animated on the field? Or is he really as serene as he seems to be? If he is, it’s quite a feat, for every fan he meets, every message he gets has just one simple instruction: “Win the World Cup for India!”

The amateur analysis is that India should — will! — simply blast New Zealand out of their way in the semifinals here tomorrow.

Kohli is aware of the stupidity of this assumption; but at every step, at hotels and streets, he’s confronted by excited or drunk Indians who assert that India must win tomorrow.

The amateur analysis ignores the fact that New Zealand beat India in their practice match at the Oval in London on May 25. The foursome of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Kohli and Hardik Pandya contributed a total of 28 runs in that game. India were crushed. New Zealand’s seamers made the ball talk — the nature of the dismissals suggests that the ball moved. The above-named four were dismissed bowled, lbw or caught-behind. 

But much water has flowed through the Thames — or the river Irwell in Manchester, if you prefer — over the 40-odd says since then. India have lost only once in the tournament, to England; they’ve overpowered the opposition in other high-pressure games, teams as strong as Australia or South Africa, or as wildly dangerous as Pakistan.

Yet, New Zealand is one team that India haven’t beaten yet — their match at Nottingham was washed out by rain on June 12.

It would be fair to call India favourites tomorrow. The (legal) gambling firms in the UK have declared India the favourites, and they’re usually the best judge of such things — that’s how they make their money, after all.

And if you had heard New Zealand captain Kane Williamson analyse his team’s prospects, you’d think that he agrees with the bookmakers. Williamson seemed to be on the defensive — perhaps a mask to disarm the Indian team! — for he constantly talked about the change in the conditions from June to July, from innings to innings. Given examples of how his bowlers reduced India to scores such as 18/4 in recent times, he put it down to the “conditions”.

Conditions apply

“Conditions are a big part of that question and on the ones that we have been successful, we have been able to exploit those conditions,” he said. “I think you come up against any opposition where the ball is moving, whether it is off the surface or in the air, then you do have the opportunity to take early wickets.”

The conditions… Well, in Manchester, they’re happy if it rains only mildly; if it’s merely overcast, they are ready to dance. And if it’s sunny, they’re likely to jump into the river Irwell which, if truth must be told, is not much more than a minor rivulet in the valleys of, say, Chamba.

Today was sunny; according to the local Met Office, there are 50% chances of rain here tomorrow during match hours. That might make the conditions helpful for the Kiwis; else, if the day is dry, on a wicket that has been used earlier in the tournament, Indian spinners would be happier than the New Zealand seamers.

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