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How the T20 World Cup semi-finals may play out

Lounge analyses the tactics and conditions that have separated the semi-finalists from the teams that didn't make it

England managed to reach the semi-finals despite tasting defeat against South Africa because they got their tactics right.
England managed to reach the semi-finals despite tasting defeat against South Africa because they got their tactics right. (ANI)

England bowled the West Indies out for 55 on a dicey wicket in Dubai, then lost four wickets for 39. But they didn’t let up, reaching their target quickly in 8.2 overs. This was their first game of the 2021 T20 World Cup, but they already had an eye on their net run rate.

South Africa had a similar opportunity to boost their net run rate when they dismissed Bangladesh for 84 in Abu Dhabi. But they were overcautious after losing three wickets for 33, going at a run a ball to reach their target in 13.3 overs with six wickets in hand. A few days later, Australia bowled Bangladesh out for 73 and overhauled the target in 6.2 overs. 

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That net run rate booster gave Australia a ticket to the semi-finals despite a drubbing by England. South Africa got squeezed out despite beating the table topper England and losing only one game narrowly to Australia. It was tactical superiority that enabled England and Australia to seize their net run rate opportunities, while South Africa let their opportunities slip, separating the winners from the losers in Group 1. 

The Proteas were tardy in their chase against the West Indies too, reaching the target of 144 in the 19th over despite losing only two wickets, with Rassie van der Dussen staying unbeaten on 43 in 51 balls. The same batsman scored 94 in 60 balls in the last game against England, but ended in tears as it couldn’t make up for the earlier tardiness.

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It’s not the first time South Africa have paid a dear price for choking in a World Cup. The team’s current coach, Mark Boucher, had defended the last ball for no run in the 45th over against Sri Lanka in the 2003 ODI World Cup, as rain started pouring down. He was under the impression that South Africa were ahead but in fact the scores were tied under the Duckworth-Lewis system with no further play. The draw knocked the home team out of the World Cup in the very first round. This time Boucher is left ruing the conservative approach in the Bangladesh and West Indies games that denied South Africa a semi-final berth.

Situational awareness and adaptive leadership, at which England and Australia have excelled, could also play a decisive part in the semis, as T20 results often hinge on one or two good calls or faulty decisions.

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Seaming advantage: While taking their eye off the net run rate cost the Proteas in Group 1, a mixture of bad luck and poor choices hurt India. India’s selectors were so convinced that spin would win the Cup in the UAE that they initially overloaded the squad of 15 with five spinners. This was odd as India were scheduled to play all but one of their Super 12 games in Dubai, where the grass and bounce helps seamers more than spinners.  

When this became apparent during the UAE leg of the Indian Premier League (IPL) preceding the World Cup, they replaced left-arm spinner Axar Patel with medium-pacer Shardul Thakur. But it was not nearly enough.

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One of India’s specialist pacers, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, has been bowling at a slow medium 125 kmph after returning from a groin injury. And Thakur is a medium pacer who relies on variations in the middle overs. This left India with only two fast bowlers who could hit the deck in Dubai to discomfit batsmen. The tall Delhi pacer, Avesh Khan, who was in fine fettle in the IPL, clocking 145 kmph and claiming 24 wickets—compared to Bhuvneshwar’s six—could have been a more potent third seamer for India.

It’s no surprise that teams with three-pronged wicket-taking pacers made it to the semi-finals. The Aussie trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, and Josh Hazlewood covered for their misfiring batsmen more than once. The raw pace of Lockie Ferguson and Adam Milne complemented the skills of Kiwi seamers Trent Boult and Tim Southee. England’s Chris Woakes, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills (now replaced by Mark Wood) got the job done in varied conditions at the three venues. And Pakistan’s six-foot-six-inch 145-kmph swinger Shaheen Shah Afridi and 150-kmph speedster Haris Rauf did enough damage to avoid exposing the weakness of their third seamer, Hasan Ali. The semi-finals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with seam-friendly pitches, promise to be a good match-up between these teams. 

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Wrist-spinners’ success: Leg-spinners Adil Rashid of England, Adam Zampa of Australia, Shadab Khan of Pakistan, Ish Sodhi of New Zealand, Tabraiz Shamsi of South Africa, and Wanindu Hasaranga de Silva of Sri Lanka have also been among the wickets. Tall off-spinners Moeen Ali of England and Ravichandran Ashwin of India tasted success. Even the left-arm orthodox spin of India’s Ravindra Jadeja and Pakistan’s Imad Wasim was useful when their sides bowled first. 

India persisted with the inexperienced finger-flicker Varun Chakravarthy, who went wicketless in three games in Dubai. Ashwin came into the playing eleven only from the third game. The hype over Chakravarthy’s exploits in the IPL got the better of the team management, who failed to take into account these were mainly in Sharjah. Even Afghanistan’s redoubtable mystery spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman could not replicate in Dubai what he did in Sharjah, where the surface helps bowlers of this type. 

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India’s wily leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, who took 18 wickets in this year’s IPL at an economy rate of 7, wasn’t even part of the World Cup squad. The selectors chose young Rahul Chahar who played only in the last game against Namibia and got no wicket.

The experienced wrist-spinners among the semi-finalists are likely to make a better impression. Leg-spin and googly variations can induce miscues which get caught in the deep more often than not on the large grounds in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. 

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Dew, dew, go away: Dew has been a spoilsport, especially in Dubai, where the team batting first has lost every evening game of the Super 12. Most of these were one-sided affairs, except for one game in which Pakistan almost made a hash of a modest chase of 148 against Afghanistan. 

India were decidedly unlucky to have been slotted into evening games in Dubai for both their crucial opening encounters against Pakistan and New Zealand. Skipper Virat Kohli lost both tosses which had a huge bearing on the outcomes. Faulty selection and poor strategy made matters worse, removing any chance to overcome the odds.

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Even in Abu Dhabi, the team batting second has won most matches. The exceptions were India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka who put up big totals they could defend. But lack of pace bowling firepower in their opponents Afghanistan, Namibia, and the West Indies contributed to those outcomes. Seamers may be tougher to handle up front in Wednesday’s semi-final between England and New Zealand, unless the pitch is shorn of grass.

Given the conditions we have seen so far in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the best batting strategy seems to be prudence at the outset, avoid losing too many early wickets, and then ramp up the strike rate through the middle overs and finish. Pakistan has adopted this approach and even chose to bat first against Namibia and Scotland to practise it. Thursday’s semi-final against Australia will show if they can become the first team to win an evening game in Dubai batting first, should they lose the toss.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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