South Africa's players during a practice session
South Africa's players during a practice session ahead of the match against India in the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup 2023, at Eden Gardens, in Kolkata on Saturday. Image Credit: ANI

Kolkata: Every time India has played in the Cricket World Cup, the fans have come out in large numbers to support the home team. It is a natural phenomenon in any sport and across any tournament.

Even so, a World Cup in India hits differently – especially when the Men in Blue walk out on the field.

India’s games have been a pure delight from a spectator’s point of view. A sea of blue has thronged the grounds – from Chennai, to Ahmedabad, to Delhi, to Mumbai, and everywhere else in between.

The caravan now rolls into Kolkata, where the majestic Eden Gardens waits in anticipation. On Sunday, it will be packed to the brim as 70,000 fans sing and cheer in unison as India take on South Africa.

Only unbeaten side

India, of course, will look to continue its winning run. It is the only unbeaten side in the tournament and is atop the points’ table with 14 points from seven successive wins – a dominant showing to confirm its semifinal spot.

To say India has steamrolled the opposition with both bat and ball wouldn’t be excessive. It notched up consecutive successful chases in the first five games.

Afghanistan and Pakistan were brushed aside by eight and seven wickets in Delhi and Ahmedabad, respectively. Prior to that, Australia wasn’t allowed to pass 200 runs in Chennai as the two-time champions won by six wickets.

Bangladesh posed little threat in Pune, while New Zealand’s momentum was halted in Dharamsala. Defending champions England were humbled by 100 runs in Lucknow, and Sri Lanka was simply blown away in Mumbai – all out for 55 in a 358-run chase.

Indian cricket players attend a practice session at the Eden Gardens Cricket Stadium in Kolkata on November 4, 2023, ahead of their match against South Africa.
Indian cricket players attend a practice session at the Eden Gardens Cricket Stadium in Kolkata on November 4, 2023, ahead of their match against South Africa. Image Credit: AFP

Fine performances

India’s winning run has been inspired by some fine performances. Star batsman Virat Kohli is second in the run-charts with 442 from seven games. Skipper Rohit Sharma is also amongst the top five run-getters on 402.

Jasprit Bumrah is fifth in the wickets’ charts with 15 from seven games. But it is Mohammed Shami who has set the tournament alight with 14 wickets in only three games. His haul includes five-wicket displays against New Zealand and Sri Lanka, as he became India’s most successful bowler in World Cups.

Shami came into the eleven after Hardik Pandya suffered an ankle injury against Bangladesh. The star all-rounder was ruled out of the remaining World Cup on Saturday morning – ahead of India’s final two league stage games. This was after the hosts waited two weeks on the all-rounder’s recuperation to see if he could be fit in time for the knockouts.

A shift in strategy

Paceman Prasidh Krishna – who has 29 wickets from 17 ODIs – has been called up as replacement. It marks a shift in India’s strategy for this World Cup. While in Pandya’s absence, India was forced to play six batters and field only five bowlers, going ahead, it doesn’t have any other feasible option.

While Shardul Thakur and Ravichandran Ashwin are available, skipper Sharma has previously outlined how they could only be utilised as a sixth bowling option if Pandya was available. Adjusting a sixth bowling option would mean dropping a batter, which isn’t prudent in a batter-dominant tournament.

Further, India’s three frontline pacemen have done a brilliant job thus far and this combination – albeit far from ideal – merits more game time.

“The change is obvious for us … we had backup options in batting and spin, but this was one area where we felt we needed some option. This is the combination we are going to play,” said coach Rahul Dravid.

“Obviously we don’t have a sixth bowling option. Pandya provided us that … but we have played with five bowlers in the last three games. Before the World Cup, we have done that earlier also (and won) … so, we have responded really well to that challenge.”

Proteas flying high

South Africa, in turn, would like to exploit this chink in India’s armour. The Proteas have been flying high – placed second with 12 points from seven games. It needs one more win to confirm qualification for the semi-finals.

More importantly, South Africa has notched up four scores of 350-plus in this tournament – three of them are the tournament’s highest totals.

It has been able to achieve this with ample batting firepower. Quinton de Kock is ahead of Kohli in the run-scoring charts – 545 runs in seven games. Then, the middle order packs a punch. Rassie van der Dussen, Aiden Markram and Heinrich Klaasen have all accumulated power-packed hundreds. This batting line-up likes to dominate overs 11-40 and then launch a scathing finish in the second powerplay.

“In these batting friendly conditions, these days, if you don’t take wickets, guys will score big against you. And for us, as a top-order, it’s finding that balance between being attacking and scoring runs … as also setting the base up for the middle order to come in,” said van der Dussen.

Against India, this element of South Africa’s game plan is likely where the match will be won, or lost. Can it power through the tournament’s best bowling attack? Or will the Men in Blue dominate yet again on home soil?

The answers will go a long way in setting up the match-ups in the knockout stages.