India were given their first scare of the World Cup when West Indies reduced them to 78 for 4 and 134 for 6 in a chase of 183, but MS Dhoni shepherded them through to an eventually comfortable win with four wickets in hand and 10.5 overs to spare. West Indies finally displayed some grit and fight with late-order runs and some penetrating quick bowling, but the damage done by Chris Gayle at the start of the match was too much to undo.
Sunil Gavaskar’s 36 off 174 in the first World Cup match of them all. Geoffrey Boycott’s 57 off 105, which might or might not have featured a deliberate dropped catch by Clive Lloyd, in the 1979 final. Two of the worst innings played in the tournament’s history, in terms of the detrimental impact they had on the team.
Gayle put them to shade with his refusal to run singles, accounting for at least one-and-a-half wickets, before trying to make up for those by going on a blind hitting spree, which accounted for him too. By the time Gayle was done, West Indies were 35 for 3 in nine overs. Denesh Ramdin played one on next ball, and there was too much time left to bat for the usual rescuers, Lendl Simmons, Darren Sammy and Andre Russell.
In Gavaskar’s defence, India were chasing 335 in the 19th ODI of all time, which is a bit like chasing 334 in the 19th Twenty20 international of all time. Gayle’s only defence can be his fitness. He is an extremely skilled batsman and can be great fun to watch when in full flow. But it is clear he is not fit and is not looking to run runs. That Gayle still plays every match no questions asked underlines a serious lack of players who are available and those whom the selectors are willing to pick. Purely on fitness grounds, it is hard to imagine any other team in this World Cup selecting a self-acknowledged injured cricketer.
When you are such a player’s opening partner, you’d better not be in poor form. The two gentlemen mentioned before Gayle – great Test batsmen both of them – will tell you that when batting is tough, the best place to be is at the non-striker’s end. Poor Dwayne Smith, struggling with his pull shot, looked to get just there with nudges and dabs, but Gayle kept sending him back. Immediately after Gayle had turned down a third easy single in the first five overs, Smith edged a ball he should have been watching from the other end.
In came one of the laziest runners between the wickets, Marlon Samuels. Cue more cricket lacking urgency. Pressure kept building. Gayle offered a half chance to third man, which Umesh Yadav couldn’t hold on to. Now with Yadav bowling, Gayle provided another chance. The top edge went high in the air, but fell short of mid-on. West Indies could have strolled an easy single, but Gayle was oblivious to the world around him.
Samuels jogged through for one, saw Gayle was not moving, touched the bat down in the crease at the striker’s end and began to jog back. He had jogged one-and-a-half runs by the time the ball reached the stumps at the non-striker’s end. Gayle had taken one-and-a-half steps by then.
Those who know Samuels’ history with poor running and his role in a fair few run-outs in his time didn’t miss the irony. The lackadaisical manner in which it happened galled. There was no frantic calling, no flailing arms, no what-the-hell-are-you-doing-Chris reaction from Samuels. Only Gayle could have been lazier than Samuels. Even though he took only one step out of the crease, Gayle reached his ground after Samuels had strolled in. It is possible Samuels, who left the field justifiably angry, sacrificed his wicket even without realising it.
Gayle was angrier and began hitting everything he saw. Only on extremely rare occasions do you succeed with such low-percentage cricket. Friday in Perth wasn’t one of those occasions. It has been a while since Gayle has done well against good, short fast bowling, and he eventually top-edged Mohammed Shami to deep forward square leg.
In the first over of the match, India hardly went up when Gayle had faintly edged one through to the keeper. A cheeky storyteller might even put it in the same bracket as Lloyd dropping Boycott.
Teamwork, cricketing nous, and the skill to take singles were all missing. What makes such six-or-nothing batting even more ridiculous is that West Indies are highly likely to enter a three-way tie for the last two qualifying spots from their group. There was no attempt to bat sensibly to minimise the run-rate damage.
West Indies have stayed alive in the tournament thanks to Simmons, Ramdin, Sammy and Russell, but previously their repairs began around the middle of the innings.
Here they were asked to do the job from the 10th over onwards. The Indian bowlers and fielders have been the heroes of their campaign so far. The fielders slipped a little, dropping two half chances and two regulation ones, but the bowlers were not going to let West Indies back into the contest.
Jason Holder, the 23-year-old captain of the sinking ship, resisted with his second consecutive fifty, but West Indies faced only 44.2 overs. How they would have wished they had batted the whole quota once the bowlers began to drag India back. Jerome Taylor was exceptional mixing outswingers and short balls, Holder was steady at the other end, and Kemar Roach quick at first change. Russell, too, made good use of the bouncer. Taylor got rid of Shikhar Dhawan through a wide in-between length, and Rohit Sharma through a perfect outswinger. Virat Kohli not only steadied the chase, he threatened to run away it until Russell got him on the hook.
Ajinkya Rahane fell to a controversial catch behind the wicket, Suresh Raina hopped around before edging one that was short and wide, and Ravindra Jadeja fell to the hook again. India were in a spot given Dhoni’s recent form, but with a comfortable asking rate he got time to play himself in. Coolly, he absorbed pressure, saw off the threatening bowling, and the runs began to flow by themselves.
It was India’s eighth consecutive win in World Cups, equalling their longest streak. More importantly one of the best finishers in the game rediscovered his touch, sealing off a difficult chase for the first time since July 2013. Fittingly this made Dhoni India’s most successful captain away from home.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo