ICC Cricket World Cup Preview – India
Can MS Dhoni’s men add to India’s sole World Cup final win in 1983? Sandru Santhana Anandaraj reports.
Captain: MS Dhoni
ODI Ranking: 2nd
Best result at World Cup: Winners (1983)
2007 World Cup: First round
Squad: MS Dhoni (c and wk), Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, , Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Sreesanth (replacement for Praveen Kumar), Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, Piyush Chawla, R Ashwin
Likely XI: Tendulkar, Sehwag, Gambhir, Raina, Kohli, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Harbhajan, Zaheer, Munaf, Nehra
Last five games: LLWWL
Following their abysmal exit in the first round of the 2007 World Cup, India will be looking to make their home fans this time around. Many of the dinosaurs, such as Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, that played in the West Indies have made way for an injection of youth and talented domestic players, while retaining a core of experienced, powerful personnel. This new approach to selection (i.e. actually backing youth) has paid off in the form of a World Twenty20 title in 2007, but the BCCI will be looking for a much bigger return on it’s youth investment. They are coming off the back of a 3-2 ODI series defeat at the hands of South Africa away though. Granted, the batting line up was markedly different, with Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar out of action, but the men in blue will only have two warm up matches against Australia and New Zealand to get their batting and bowling attacks sorted out.
Going into an astonishing sixth World Cup, Sachin Tendulkar will take his customary spot at the top of the Indian batting line up. Since the last World Cup, Tendulkar has overcome injury and rather dogged calls for his retirement to strike a rich vein of form, probably best encapsulated by his barely believable 200 not out against South Africa early last year. Fitting really for the man with the most runs and matches in ODI history to take the record. Three of his four highest scores ever in One Day International cricket were made in the last year, two of them coming against top quality opposition in South Africa and Australia (175 to almost help India over the line in a game in late 2009). The thirty-seven year old maestro is far from finished at international level.
Then there’s Virender Sehwag at the other end. Just like a set of Diwali fireworks, this guy can end a match within the first twenty overs and complements Tendulkar’s more subdued but equally effective method of scoring. His shoulder is still a tad painful though, so it may reduce the effectiveness of some of his shots: instead of the ball flying over backward point or third man for six, it might just land inside the rope instead. He will also be utilised for his part time off spinners, which he bowls in a traditional fashion as opposed to his compatriots Harbhajan Singh and Ravichandran Ashwin. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dhoni also goes to Sehwag for some advice on field setting – we have seen in previous IPL tournaments that Sehwag is a no nonsense aggressive captain who gets things done.
When he is finally dismissed, the middle order is more than capable of continuing the onslaught, thanks to new superstar Suresh Raina and former U/19 captain Virat Kohli. I am quite surprised that the Indian selectors are still persisting with Yuvraj Singh when they have players such as Murali Vijay up their sleeves, but I guess the Indian selectors are going with Yuvraj’s experience, hoping he can find the form that he showed in the 2007 World Twenty20 (something Stuart Broad hopes doesn’t occur again).
Something that will also be worrying about this line up is MS Dhoni‘s current batting style. It is not his form that is a problem per se, it is the way that he goes about scoring his runs. He seems to have lost that aggression that we saw in 2007/2008, belting the living suitcases out of the ball and seems quite content – in many ways, the same problem that Australian vice captain Michael Clarke has gone through in recent times. While Clarke has been able to hit his way into something resembling form recently, Dhoni again will be relying on those warm up games to find that explosiveness again. His role is even more important, given Yuvraj’s recent inconsistent (actually, consistently piss poor) form.
For the umpteenth time in these ICC events, India will not have a genuine quick bowler up their sleeves. Zaheer Khan technically fills that role in the absence of beanpole Ishant Sharma (he seems to have fallen off the rails), but these days Zaheer relies on good swing and seam movement. It probably won’t hurt as much on the drier, crumbly decks of the subcontinent as opposed to the harder decks in the Southern Hemisphere, but a genuinely fast bowler on a tessellated pitch can cause mayhem with a batsman’s mind and even make them feel scared. With or without a helmet, misbehaving balls can cause serious injury and probably is the ultimate test of a batsman’s technique and survival skills. Sreesanth has come in into the side to fill in for Praven Kumar. Dhoni will be hoping that the replacement doesn’t lose his marbles while on the field and that his energy is dedicated to finishing off batsmen instead of friendships with teammates.
Harbhajan Singh will again feature as India’s number one spinner but he needs to really attack the stumps if he is to be truly effective in the tournament. Containing is only ever a last resort and Harbhajan is a lot better than just a container. Remember, wickets will also bring down the run rate, so by taking wickets he is, more often than not, being economical as well. While young leg spinner Piyush Chawla has been given a run in the World Cup squad, I would like to see the dark horse, Ravichandran Ashwin get into the XI. Ashwin was a revelation last year in last year’s IPL, doing the damage alongside Australia’s Doug Bollinger and then followed that performance up in the Champions League Twenty20 in South Africa, winning the player of the tournament award. Indeed he is so valuable to the Super Kings, they actually forked out an extra $900,000 to ensure that he stayed with Chennai.
One would also imagine that Yuvraj, Sehwag and Raina will get overs during matches (in that order), so there is a chance that a good thirty to thirty five overs could be spin only. It would take some brave captaincy to do that, but given Dhoni’s experience as Chennai captain, he would understand the virtue of taking the pace off the ball in limited overs cricket and I would back him to trot out as many spinners as he can find, with Zaheer and Sreesanth to merely take the shine off the ball.
Verdict and road to the final.
Final (exercise caution)
India are in Group B, the ‘group of death’ of sorts. Tough assignments await in the form of South Africa and a recharged England XI. Strauss’ men should not be written off at this stage and I’ll explain why in a moment. India’s draw appears to be relatively spaced out, with games against the Associates in the middle of the group stage and a game against the Worst Innings West Indies to end their first round exploits. Since India will play the West Indies last, so they can be assured of a relatively easy in the final game of the group stage if they need to win their last match (unless Gayle and co. collectively decide to click into gear). A quarter final berth is assured and I think that India have the personnel to go all the way to the final (I’ll make a final prediction prior to the final).
Despite this, they need to ensure that everyone (including the reserves) are focused on winning matches to ensure that they have the easiest possible set of matches in the knockout phases of the tournament. In particular, India should not underestimate the power of England, despite their recent 6-1 drubbing against a weakened Australian XI. During the 2009 Champions Trophy (again, following another 6-1 belting at the hands of the Australians), England gave South Africa and Sri Lanka the shock of their lives. The two favourites, particularly amongst the cricket commentariat, were knocked out in the group stage, with their semi final places taken by the Three Lions and New Zealand. Now is not the time for complacency.
Games: 19 Feb (VS Bangladesh), 27 Feb (VS England), 6 Mar (VS Ireland), 9 Mar (VS Netherlands), 12 Mar (VS South Africa), 20 Mar (VS West Indies).
(Image from Ali Jackson on Flickr via Creative Commons, you can check out his work here)