An exciting, unpredictable T20 World Cup reaches its denouement with the semi-finals on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by Sunday’s final. The cloudy early summer weather in Australia, the variety of conditions on different grounds, and the coming of age of the minnows, all played their part in the round robins. When the dust settled, the defending champions and hosts, Australia, were out; and so were another pre-tournament favourite from the southern hemisphere: South Africa.
South Africa’s shocking capitulation to the Netherlands reopened the door for Pakistan; a door that had almost shut after losses to India and Zimbabwe. They will now be a dangerous side with a formidable bowling attack that can go all the way in the tournament.
Pakistan’s semi-final opponent in Sydney on Wednesday will be New Zealand, who began their campaign with a rollicking 89-run win over Australia at the same venue. It was the margin of that victory which eventually put the Kiwis on top and eliminated Australia on net run rate after three teams were tied on 7 points in Group 1.
But Pakistan too had a good outing in Sydney, where they recovered from 95-5 to score 185 and beat South Africa. Shaheen Shah Afridi ripped open the Proteas top order and leg-spinner Shadab Khan dealt a killer blow in the middle with two wickets in one over. There will be help for the new ball bowlers early on, but Sydney has traditionally been good for spinners too.
Pakistan appear to have a slight edge over the Kiwis in bowling. Shadab Khan is the best leg-spinner in the tournament. And the pace quartet of Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah, Haris Rauf, and Mohammad Wasim is in full flow now that Afridi has started firing.
New Zealand have the experience of Trent Boult and Tim Southee to swing the new ball, the pace of Lockie Ferguson, the leg-spin of Ish Sodhi and the left-arm spin of Mitchell Santner. That’s also an attack well-suited for the Sydney track.
So the first semi-final may well be decided by the quality of batting on both sides. New Zealand may want to go full blast in the powerplay, like they did against Australia, knowing the threat the Pak spinners will pose later. Kiwi skipper Kane Williamson’s role will be crucial in blunting Shadab Khan in the middle overs, but Williamson has struggled to raise his scoring rate except in the last game against Ireland.
His counterpart, Babar Azam, has fared even worse in the tournament so far, despite being one of the world’s top batsmen. It’s now or never for him to come to grips with the bouncier wickets. Pakistan’s batting is shaky but the induction of young Mohammad Haris at No.4 is a timely booster.
The pitch in Sydney is no longer fresh and the sun has been beating down, the deeper the tournament has gone into the Australian summer. So it may be a good toss to win and bat first. Australia made the mistake of putting New Zealand in to bat first in the first game and paid dearly. Pakistan did not make that mistake later when they chose to bat first against South Africa.
Slow and Square in Adelaide
Batting first may hold a slight edge in the second semi-final too in Adelaide. Although it’s known to be the friendliest venue for batsmen in Australia, the slowness of the pitch has tripped up many batsmen in this tournament. This was evident in the last two group matches there.
Afghanistan restricted Australia to 168 for 8 even though the home team was desperate to score big and boost their net run rate. Then South Africa failed to chase a target of 159 against the Netherlands to lose a semi-final spot that had seemed theirs for the taking.
India and England will keep this in mind for their game. India would be tempted to go for Harshal Patel’s off-pace variations in place of the ineffective left-arm spin of Axar Patel. But Harshal Patel hasn’t played a single game yet, which makes it a gamble to bring him in now.
The second quandary for India is whether to stick with Rishabh Pant, who finally played in the last game against Zimbabwe, or bring back Dinesh Karthik. The left-handed Pant could take out England’s leg-spinner Adil Rashid in the middle overs, targeting Adelaide’s relatively short square boundaries. Pant is also a proven batsman Down Under. But, unfortunately, he’s undercooked in this tournament because India preferred Karthik in the first four games.
The 37-year-old Karthik, meanwhile, has struggled on Australian wickets. Even his wicket-keeping could have cost India the game against Bangladesh as he dropped top-scorer Litton Das. India won by just 5 runs in the end.
The chances are that India will now stick with Pant who scored a match-winning ODI century against England earlier this year. But it would’ve been nice if he had got as much time in the middle as the others. It reminds one of the 2019 ODI World Cup where India fiddled with the likes of Vijay Shankar in the middle order and only brought in Pant just before the semi-final.
England appear well-settled, with depth and variety in both batting and bowling. They did come unstuck in a loss to Ireland. But they redeemed themselves by beating New Zealand. A last-minute hitch is Dawid Malan’s groin injury, which may prevent him from playing in the semi-final. But it could prove a blessing in disguise for England as Malan has been scratchy whereas his likely replacement at No.3, Phil Salt, was in blustering form in a series in Pakistan just before the World Cup.
It may come down to who adapts to the conditions in Adelaide better, and India have the advantage of having played a game there already. Virat Kohli top-scored with an unbeaten 64 in 44 balls in that game against Bangladesh, and Adelaide is his favourite venue in Australia. But the real key man for India is Suryakumar Yadav, the world’s current top-ranked T20 batsman.
It has been a World Cup full of drama, and more highs and lows await us in the knockouts.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.