London, Jul 12 : Tagged as one of the pre-tournament favourites, the Men in Blue lived up to their reputation by topping the points table, losing only one game in the league stages, but an uncharacteristic top-order collapse in the semis shattered all hopes of winning a third World Cup title.
Powered by their top order's consistency and backed by sustained bowling efforts, India looked the team to beat for the most part of the World Cup.
They notched up clinical wins in their first three completed games, against South Africa, Australia and Pakistan, before the bowlers overshadowed below-par batting returns against Afghanistan and West Indies.
A 31-run defeat to England - their first of the tournament - acted as an eye-opener.
A switch to an aggressive approach, against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, resulted in convincing wins and ensured that the team headed into the knockouts with confidence.
Ahead of the semi-finals, India were hot favourites still, facing New Zealand who had lost their previous three games. However, the Kiwi opening bowlers reduced India to 5/3, and later 92/6 in the run-chase. The two-time champions never found themselves ahead of the required rate, and eventually fell short.
India have slowly moved away from their reputation of being a batting-reliant team. The Virat Kohli-led side went into the tournament with only three frontline seam bowlers. Yet, the team management had a tough time choosing between the in-form Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar to partner Jasprit Bumrah in the final XI.
Bhuvneshwar's injury presented an opportunity to Shami, who picked up 14 wickets in four matches, including a match-defining hat-trick against Afghanistan. The spin duo of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal too, barring the outing against England, made their presence felt throughout their campaign.
KL Rahul, who was earlier slotted in to bat at no.4, embraced the role of an opener in the absence of the injured Shikhar Dhawan, stitching three century stands with Rohit Sharma. Rishabh Pant showed promise too, replacing Vijay Shankar in the middle order.
Hardik Pandya's returns with both bat and ball, and Ravindra Jadeja's revival were the highlights of India's campaign. Both Pandya and Jadeja (in the two games he played) contributed handsomely with the ball, as India barely appeared a bowler short. While Hardik produced late batting fireworks in the final leg of the innings on a consistent basis, Jadeja registered one of his best-ever ODI efforts in the semi-finals, with his stroke-filled 77.
India's unblemished top order almost invariably brought about match-winning results on a consistent basis.
However, the vulnerable middle order rarely had a back-up plan, in case of early wickets. The batsmen rarely dominated the game once the top three were back to the hut. MS Dhoni, designated the role of holding the innings together, came in to bat at No.7 in the semi-final, surprising quite a few. As Dhoni nears the end of an illustrious career, team India will have to start looking for options beyond him, to form a solid nucleus for the middle overs.
Rishabh Pant was perhaps the most notable absentee from the initial squad. After being included in the side as a replacement, Pant might not have produced match-defining performances but has certainly demonstrated his skills as an ODI batsman.
His 29-ball stay at the crease, against England, in his first World Cup appearance, kept India within reach of the target. A quickfire 48 against Bangladesh, after India had slipped to 237/4, despite a 180-run opening stand, ensured a match-winning total of 314-9.
However, it was his innings in the semi-finals which, in a way, started the rescue act after a horrid start. Walking in to bat at 5/2, Pant saw two more wickets fall at the other end but showed grit and patience during his 52-ball stay. (UNI)