By: Chinmay Vaidya
The semifinals are officially set with top seed India taking on New Zealand and second seed Australia battling the hosts England.
India captured the top seed on the last day of the group stage, topping Sri Lanka and seeing Australia lose to South Africa. The Men in Blue have a deadly opener in Rohit Sharma, arguably the best batsman in the world in Virat Kohli and plenty of bowling talent.
Sharma is on fire. He's the frontrunner for Player of the Tournament and will almost certainly win the award should India go all the way. Five centuries, including three in a row, is no easy feat. With Shikhar Dhawan out for the tournament, Sharma has carried the mantle as India's opener. New Zealand has to plan for him.
Kohli has flown under the radar, but he's been stellar in the tournament. The captain has 442 runs, but has yet to play the big innings he's known for. Kohli hasn't had to do much this tournament with Sharma's form, but he's more than capable of carrying India all the way to the title. New Zealand is going to throw a lot of pace at Kohli; will he successfully navigate it?
The issue for India is what happens if Sharma and Kohli don't click. It hasn't happened so far, but usually the law of averages catches up to teams at some point. KL Rahul has played a solid hand in the last three games, but India's supporting cast has been very underwhelming. Here's India's run distribution heading into the matchup with New Zealand.
It's pure comedy that Sharma has been worth the rest of the team on his own up to this point. Kohli is contributing his usual weight and Rahul has chipped in a significant percentage of runs, but the rest of the team has been off. MS Dhoni has been criticized for his approach, but that's just who he is at this point. 2011 Dhoni isn't walking through the door. Hardik Pandya has fired at the end of an innings, but can he rescue a situation? Vijay Shankar and Kedar Jadhav haven't shown the ability to step up.
All this leads to the question of whether India should play both its specialist spinners against the Blackcaps. Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav started off the World Cup on fire, but both have struggled of late. Ravindra Jadeja has been utilized in the field, but could India field him in the playing XI to add an additional bat?
Here's what India's spinners have done up to this point. Chahal and Yadav have played every game together except for the final two contests, where India fielded just one specialist spinner. The former has been the more consistent performer, but has also gone for more runs.
Chahal Figures: 4/51, 2/62, 0/53, 2/36, 2/39, 0/88, 1/50
Yadav Figures: 1/46, 0/55, 2/32, 0/39, 1/35, 1/72, 1/58
India will absolutely play one of Chahal and Yadav. The question is whether Jadeja should get a nod as a member of the playing XI. If Jadeja plays, Chahal likely gets the nod.
New Zealand is dealing with its own issues. After storming through the first half of the group stage, the Kiwis looked like a complete wreck in the last three contests. New Zealand got pummeled by Australia and England, which surely put in dent in the team's confidence. But New Zealand did enough in the early stages of the tournament to create a buffer and advance to the semifinals on net run rate.
One positive for New Zealand is the performance of the three all-rounders. James Neesham, Colin de Grandhomme and Mitchell Santner have contributed with both bat and ball, extending New Zealand's batting lineup and giving Kane Williamson additional reliable bowling options. Unfortunately, the contributions with bat and ball haven't all come together in the same games for the all-rounders.
Match 4 was the rained out contest against India. The all-rounders didn't need to bat in Match 1 or 3, resulting in nothing for those contests. If New Zealand can get a complete performance from its three all-rounders, the Blackcaps will be in good shape.
Williamson's form is another thing to watch. New Zealand's openers have been pathetic, failing to create magic after the opening match. Martin Guptill looks washed up and there hasn't been a reliable partner next to him. Colin Munro looked lost after the opening match and Henry Nicholls appears out of his element. If Williamson can't steady the ship in the middle, the Kiwis are doomed. And after a stellar run early, Williamson is struggling.
Scoring in the 40s isn't bad, but it's not helpful either when both your openers are toast in 25-30 runs. Williamson and Ross Taylor (who needs to not try to turn clear singles into impossible 2s) need to re-establish themselves in the middle order. The all-rounders should show up to extend New Zealand's batting lineup, but the captain needs to show why he's a star.
In the second semifinal, Australia will face off with England in a rematch of a thrilling group stage game. England looked like it would chase down Australia with Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler in the middle, but Mitchell Starc struck and the Aussies pulled out the win. Starc has been brilliant and Pat Cummins has been a strong partner from the other end of the pitch, but Australia's supporting bowlers need to step up. Here's the wicket distribution among the Aussies.
If England goes into the game looking to see Starc through, Australia could have a problem on its hands. Starc won't concede runs, but he's Australia's most reliable wicket-taking option. If he can't strike, England could do real damage. Joe Root and Stokes have been anchors in the middle, but the opening pair responsible for much of the host's success is back.
Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow have batted together five times in this tournament, averaging 61.6 runs per stand. In the four other games, England's opening pair (Bairstow-Root once and Bairstow-Vince thrice) averaged 35. Roy and Bairstow have two stands of 100+ runs, while the other pairs have two stands under 2 runs. There's no comparison.
This semifinal could be a big moment for two players who have underwhelmed in this tournament. Buttler, a popular pick to be Player of the Tournament, has had a volatile run. He started off the tournament with some fireworks, but has consistently failed to click at the back half of the group stage. Unless Buttler leads England to the title with two monster innings, he's not coming anywhere near the Player of the Tournament honors.
For Australia, all-rounder Glenn Maxwell needs to step up. With the status of Usman Khawaja and Marcus Stoinis in doubt, Maxwell needs to score runs. He's maintained a supreme strike rate at 163.15, but his average is a paltry 17.22. Australia doesn't need the explosive innings; it just needs a real innings from Maxwell.
Buttler has been the slightly better player with an average of 31.63 (he didn't bat in one contest)and his strike rate of 130.41 is great. England just needs him to play the extended knock rather than a quick-fire 25 or 30, unless the situation calls for it. Maxwell, on the other hand, just needs to score some runs. How these players perform could determine which team comes out on top.