There are no certainties in sport.
But when India’s batsmen walked to the crease at Old Trafford on Wednesday morning, the score predictor gave it a 98% chance of victory in the Cricket World Cup semifinal against New Zealand.
Few would have disagreed, though perhaps some might have settled for 90% instead. Even the most ardent of New Zealand supporters must have feared the worst after watching its side limp to 239-8 off its 50 overs.
That it contrived to lose by 18 runs after a thrilling contest should finally extinguish the aura of this Indian side.
After rain had forced play to be called off for the day on Tuesday evening, most of those turning up in Manchester were expecting to watch an Indian progression into Sunday’s final at Lord’s.
Backed by thousands of fans clad in blue shirts, and the colors of the Indian flag painted across their faces, this was supposed to be a formality for one of the most fearsome batting line-ups in world cricket.
The fans had come to watch Rohit Sharma, the tournament’s leading scorer, and Virat Kohli, the world’s best batsman, fire India to glory and a meeting with either host nation England or reigning champion Australia.
And yet, what transpired, was anything but a formality. For New Zealand, this was the kind of scenario it has thrived on. Consistently overlooked, consistently underestimated, and consistently capable of making everyone else look foolish, the Black Caps did what it does best once again.
“It’s a different feeling to last time,” New Zealand captain Kane Williamson told Sky Sports after making a second successive World Cup final.
“We’ve had to skin it over the round robin, so it’s been quite different. A lot of heart has been shown by the guys so far but we’re keeping our feet on the ground. It was a great semifinal and we’re happy to be on the right side of it.”
This was one day cricket at its absolute best. Its ability to leave you breathless and exhausted while thrilling in equal capacity could scarcely have been better showcased by this contest.
The statistics would have told you that New Zealand had no right to win this contest. It had lost its three previous group games and had only qualified for the last four by virtue of having a superior run rate to Pakistan.
The statistics would also have told you that in its seven previous World Cup semifinals, it has only won once.
And perhaps the most tangible statistic was provided by the score predictor, which signaled that New Zealand was facing a 98% chance of defeat.
Perhaps nobody quite took note of the other two percent.
For within the opening minutes of India’s innings, this tie was not only turned on its head, it had turned the entire cricket world on its very axis.
India, a team full of world superstars and one of the most vaunted batting line-ups in the game, was blown away by a New Zealand side desperate for redemption and another crack at glory after losing out in the 2015 final.
The task was formidable. Sharma, came into the contest with five centuries to his name, a record for a single tournament. And yet it was he, one of India’s most assured players, who became the first victim in what was an absolutely manic opening period to the innings.
Matt Henry, who had previously managed to take just three wickets at a cost of 239 runs in his previous five innings, produced an inspired spell to claim 3-15, including the wicket of Sharma, in five spellbinding overs.
Henry had Sharma caught behind for just one before fellow strike bowler Trent Boult struck to dismiss India captain Kohli for the same score. Henry added then added the wicket of KL Rahul to leave India reeling on 5-3 – its worst ever start to a World Cup match.
It was the first time in all international cricket, both men’s and women’s, that the top three have all been dismissed for one. When Henry claimed his third wicket, that of Dinesh Karthik, India was 24-4 and facing total humiliation.
Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya attempted to stage some sort of recovery, taking India to 71 before Pant was caught off the bowling of Mitchell Santner by Colin de Grandhomme for 32.
Pant’s dismissal brought Mahendra Singh Dhoni to the crease, the 38-year-old playing in his 350th one day international contest.
It was Dhoni, after Pandya was dismissed for 32, who began to attempt a salvage operation alongside Ravindra Jadeja as India slumped to 92-6.
Slowly but surely, the two began to fightback and give India a chance with 62 required from the final six overs after reaching 178-6.
Suddenly, one partnership had begun to swing the tie. New Zealand, so dominant in the early stages of the Indian innings, began to look anxious as Jadeja took aim at the bowlers.
Having already hit a half-century, Jadeja continued to hit out, scoring at will as Indian made further inroads into the New Zealand total.
But just as the impossible was beginning to appear possible, New Zealand made the crucial breakthrough with Boult removing Jadeja for 77 off 59 deliveries.
With Jadeja’s dismissal, India’s hopes rested on the experienced shoulders of Dhoni.
Playing in what could be his final World Cup match, Dhoni set about the task in hand, blasting Lockie Ferguson for six to spark celebrations among the Indian fans in the stands.
But as those Indian fans dared to dream, New Zealand once again snatched away any semblance of hope as Martin Guptil produced an outstanding piece of fielding to run Dhoni out for 49.
Dhoni, clearly emotional, left the field of play to a standing ovation. An icon of Indian cricket, a man at the heart of the 2011 World Cup triumph, his departure signalled the end for this current team of hopefuls.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the new batsman, was dismissed without scoring after being bowled by Ferguson to leave India needing 23 off the final over with just one wicket in hand.
And when Yuzvendra Chahal edged a Jimmy Neesham delivery behind, India’s World Cup dream was finally extinguished.
“It’s tough – 45 minutes of bad cricket put you out of the tournament,” Kohli told Sky Sports after the game.
“It’s hard to come to terms with but New Zealand deserve it – they put us under pressure and came through in the key moments.
“Our shot selection could’ve been better but otherwise we played a good brand of cricket and I’m proud of the way we played.
“Come the knockouts it is anyone’s game and New Zealand showed more composure and were braver and they deserve to go through to the semifinals.”