Before the tournament, in Mumbai and Birmingham, MS Dhoni stressed on how the Indian cricket team was focused on playing good cricket in the ICC Champions Trophy. He controversially chose not to comment on the IPL 6 spot-fixing and betting scandal, instead choosing to talk about the next few weeks in England and what challenges his squad would face.
Now, after four consecutive wins, India are in the final of the last edition of the Champions Trophy. Dhoni promised a diligent effort, with an emphasis on players adapting to the extra sense of responsibility, and a fine run of form has been delivered. India beat Sri Lanka in the second semi-final in Cardiff on Thursday, and won easily, with a whopping 15 overs to spare. It would be premature to say that India's garden is rosy following the serious threat to the credibility of the nation's cricket following the spot-fixing scandal, but what has unfolded in England has been refreshingly positive after the sickening events in the latter stage of the IPL.
The difference between India and Sri Lanka in the semi-final was in the bowling. India were always likely winners once the penetrative Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma - after Dhoni won a good toss and opted to field in overcast conditions - reduced Sri Lanka to 41 for 3 in 18 overs. Sri Lanka needed a big innings from their three big batsmen but with Tillakaratne Dilshan retiring hurt and Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene failing to make an impact, Sri Lanka were psychologically damaged. They lacked a defining innings and partnership and with India's seamers applying the chokehold in 22 consecutive overs, you never got the feeling that Sri Lanka would make a comeback.
The crucial factor for India was that their form players continued the good work. Bhuvneshwar had struck with the new ball in each of India's group stages matches and removed Kusal Perera cheaply in the third over of an unbroken nine-over spell that produced just 18 runs. The Man-of-the-Match, Ishant, had his best game of the tournament and swung the match India's way irrevocably with the wickets of Lahiru Thirimanne and Sangakkara in consecutive overs. Ravindra Jadeja turned in another good performance and R Ashwin - who before Thursday had bowled economically but without wickets - was excellent in scalping three batsmen.
A chase of 182 was pulled off with ease, with Shikhar Dhawan bringing his outstanding international form into the must-win match with 68 off 92 balls. Dhawan has batted on a different level than any other batsman in the Champions Trophy and in Cardiff allowed himself time to leave the ball; even after shouldering arms to smart away-going deliveries, the 27-year-old shadow-practiced ways he could have done so better. There will indeed be tougher challenges ahead for Dhawan, but he is proving hard to shift in his second coming as an ODI batsman.
Rohit Sharma again threw away a start with a filthy heave, but that brought to the crease Virat Kohli who almost inevitably reeled off his first half-century of the tournament. India's No. 3 and heir apparent to the captaincy played a fine innings of 58 not out, steadying any nerves that Rohit's dismissal could have crept in. He caressed four boundaries and a six, the pick of them being an inside-out drive off Nuwan Kulasekara.
Up next are the hosts England in Birmingham on Sunday, a team that has looked second best to India in the tournament. Their strike bowler, James Anderson, is in fine form and at the peak of his powers as an exponent of swing bowling, and remains the biggest threat to India. More so if the conditions are overcast and the Edgbaston pitch acts up.
The two best teams have reached the final of the last Champions Trophy. India don't like being the favourites, but in truth it is they who look the side to beat.
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