Rohit and Kirsten: Keep calm and play cricket

India

The 2011 ODI World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan in Mohali was such a significant occasion that the then India coach Gary Kirsten and the rest of the staff left the meeting room to give the players a moment to themselves.

“After the show [a presentation by the team analyst] is over, Gary says the support staff is mostly non-Indian,” R Ashwin writes in the book I Have The Streets. “They value this team, and it’s a big game for them too, but they can’t even begin to imagine how big playing Pakistan in a World Cup is for us players. He says they’re all leaving now, so we can be alone and conduct the rest of the meeting ourselves.”

That was about two hours before the match, which was to be played in the presence of the highest political leaders of both countries, many celebrities, and packed stands. Sachin Tendulkar gave a rousing speech, about how he had been thinking for the last two-three years of facing Pakistan in the semi-final or the final and winning the trophy. Everybody left the meeting with goosebumps.

2011, though, was a different world. These matches used to happen rarely and organically. Now, there’s a World Cup every year and groups are planned so India and Pakistan play in the league stage. The occasion remains significant, but the edge is taken off a little.

Results in ‘big matches’ have become a millstone around the current Indian team’s neck, though they don’t necessarily play poorly in such fixtures. On the eve of the match against Pakistan, Rohit Sharma was asked whether anything was different about games where expectations and stakes are higher. Small markers such as how their brains work in the lead-up, how well they sleep, how they feel during warm-ups. Not much, said Rohit.

“Nothing has changed from last seven months because we played them [Pakistan] in the Asia Cup, the ODI World Cup, and now the T20 World Cup,” Rohit said. “Earlier it was a different ball game because we used to play them every maybe once in four years, or two years, now it’s a different ball game. We literally played seven months back in Asia Cup and the World Cup and here we are again now.

“So, for me, I think nothing changes. I want to approach this as another international game where I get myself collected and make those decisions on the field. I am sure everyone will have their own way of dealing with games like these, but I have my process. Being a captain, I have to make decisions on the field. So, I think what’s more important for me is to just think about what I need to do right now, or this particular over – not to even think of how much do we need to get after 20 overs, or how much we need to bowl them out for. I think it’s about that one over, how we want to finish that over, staying in the present, and literally just nailing down maybe over by over, and think about what you need to do in that particular over, and that is where the skill of captain comes into play.

“I’m sure other captains think differently. Everyone has their own way but this is how I like to think about that one particular over. Because this is literally a place where you can’t think too far ahead. Game changes every over here. So, you need to think about that particular over and how you can win that one over and then move on to the next over. I know there’s a lot of thinking that needs to go in this kind of thought process, but I’m okay with that.”

Rohit was not part of the semi-final 13 years ago but he has won a World Cup final before and a few games against Pakistan too. India’s coach in 2011 is Pakistan’s coach in 2024. A bowler who took a five-for that day in Mohali is now a chief selector, and Wahab Riaz couldn’t keep himself from bowling in the nets on Saturday.

Not only has he been India’s coach in the past, Kirsten has also worked with players such as Hardik Pandya and Shubman Gill as director of cricket at Gujarat Titans in the IPL. When asked if his experience brings valuable intel, Kirsten said Pakistan’s players didn’t need it.

“That’s a good question and the way I’d answer that is I think these players have seen enough of each other and how they play,” he said. “In the end we want to make sure that we get our game right. Look at the conditions and what is required on the conditions because I think that’s going to be a big day tomorrow.”

Kirsten said the vibe also felt different. “I think it is a little bit different because it’s not in India or Pakistan,” Kirsten said. “I went for a ride early this morning, which I like doing most mornings, and I certainly rode around the stadium a little bit and I kind of felt that there’s going to be a good vibe there tomorrow. So that’s going to be exciting for us all to have that many people that have come out to support the two teams.”

If Rohit is going to approach it as any other international match, Kirsten’s advice is to embrace the occasion. “Well, not to hide from the fact that it’s a big game, but to treat cricket like cricket should be treated,” he said. “Every game you need to play well, you need to hit the ball in the right areas, you need to score enough runs, you need to take your catches and field well. I don’t think it’s ever changed the game. It changes a little bit because of the formats, but that’s certainly what we’re going to go out and try to do tomorrow. If we play a really good game of cricket with our abilities, we have a good chance of winning the game.”

Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo

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