FOR THOSE in the subcontinent, the World Cup for all intents and purposes is the clash between India and Pakistan at the Adelaide Oval on 15 February. The winners may not care whether they win the cup or not; no wonder, the tickets were sold out within minutes of going on sale.
India can take heart from the fact that Pakistan have never beaten them in any ICC tournament, leave alone the World Cup.
It all started in the 1992 edition in Sydney. Those were the days when any score upwards of 200 was good enough to force a victory and India defended 216 by dismissing Pakistan for 173. India’s fifth bowler in that game was Sachin Tendulkar and he bowled his full quota of 10 overs, taking one wicket.
However, Pakistan went on to win the cup. The team made the semi-final cut by winning four of their eight matches in the nine-team round-robin league, while India endured a miserable showing, winning only one more match after beating Pakistan. A rained-off game against Sri Lanka pulled the Indians down, whereas Pakistan benefited by their washed-out match against England to pip Australia to the fourth position.
Four years later, in a highly acrimonious quarter-final match in Bengaluru, India put it across Pakistan by defending a score of 287. India went on to beat Pakistan in 1999, 2003 and 2011, the last time in a tension-packed semi-final match in Mohali. India chased down 274 in 45.4 overs and went on to win the cup. The two teams did not meet in 2007, when both were unceremoniously eliminated during the group stages in the West Indies.
This time around, the question on everyone’s lips is this: Has India lost the plot or are they waiting for the World Cup to peak? The question arose because of a terrible tour Down Under, in which India lost the four-match Test series 0-2 and failed to make the Tri-series final, losing three out of four games — one against Australia and two against England, with the fourth being washed out. To add to their woes, some of the key players are travelling as tourists, not knowing if and when they will be fit to play.
Rohit Sharma has a hamstring problem and the team management kept saying during the Tri-series that it did not want to risk playing him with the World Cup ahead. He has to play warm-up games to be match-fit, though he struck a well-crafted hundred in the first game against Australia before being sidelined by injury.
Fears have been expressed over the bowling attack looking too thin to either restrict or bowl the opposition out. The team management is keeping its fingers crossed over the fitness of experienced seamer Ishant Sharma and accurate spinner Ravindra Jadeja, who can give precious runs down the order. How long will they take to be fully fit?
Luckily, the format is such that the injured players can take their time to get fit for the business end of the tournament. It appears that the format was designed only to make sure India are in the quarters. The administrators realise that an early exit for India will mean a steep fall in spectator interest in the World Cup.
India should make the quarters even if they are not at their full strength in the group stages; unless, of course, the Caribbean nightmare revisits them.
From two pools of seven teams each, the top four teams will go through to the quarters. Along with Pakistan, South Africa and the West Indies, India should make the last eight from Pool B, leaving Ireland, Zimbabwe and United Arab Emirates behind as also-rans.
The ODI credentials of Ireland and Zimbabwe will make the stronger teams wary as they can always spring a surprise like they did in the previous editions.
Ireland had stunned England in Bengaluru in the 2011 edition when they got to the target of 329 after being 111 for five, while Zimbabwe sensationally shocked favourites South Africa by dismissing them for 185 after posting 233 for six in their 50 overs.
In 1983, when India won the World Cup the first time, current team coach Duncan Fletcher batted and bowled qualifiers Zimbabwe to a sensational 13-run victory against Australia, contributing an unbeaten 69 in a score of 239 in 60 overs and taking four wickets for 42 to restrict Kim Hughes’ team to 226.
Form and results ahead of any World Cup are not the right index to judge a team. Both before the 2003 and 2011 editions, India were not at their best to infuse confidence in their ability to do well.
In 2003, India had a horrifying time in New Zealand, losing a low-scoring Test series and also the seven-match ODI series 2-5, the two victories coming after the series was won by the hosts. That tour did a great disservice to VVS Laxman, who lost his one-day place to a player who himself did not look the part of the World Cup squad. But India went on to play the cup final against Australia, never mind that they were beaten badly.
Before the 2011 edition, India did well to win the home Test series 2-0 against Australia, but then went to South Africa where they shared the Test series 1-1. In the ODIs, India lost 2-3, with South Africa winning the last two games after the targets were revised under the Duckworth-Lewis method due to rain interruption.
Thereafter, what happened in the World Cup is part of Indian folklore.
Surely, the Indian think-tank has done its homework for the big event. They have the right kind of batsmen and even the much-maligned bowlers will not allow their opponents to ride roughshod over them.
Sourav Ganguly’s strategy of playing seven batsmen by using Rahul Dravid as a wicketkeeper cannot work under the new ODI rules where the bowlers have to operate with no more than four fielders outside the ring at all times, putting pressure on the entire team.
Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron are fast enough to use the conditions to their advantage while Bhuvneshwar Kumar will have to find conditions to swing the ball. Hopefully, Ishant will be fit to lead the attack and he can do without all the adverse publicity before taking the field. Stuart Binny should come in handy with his intelligent line and length, paving the way for playing two spinners. There are no better bowlers at home beyond the ones picked.
The batting is causing concern only because Shikhar Dhawan is still struggling to find his touch, Virat Kohli hasn’t had a big innings after the Tests and Rohit has not played much cricket in the past couple of weeks. Form cannot take a dip for long if the class is established.
In the ODI format, one of the top guns will have to fire and all others will have to play around him to post a total that can be defended. Since India always had a top-heavy batting with good finishers in the middle order, the bowling does not get the credit it deserves.
Ideally, the batsmen and bowlers will have to work out a plan, covering each other. The team has the potential to return with the cup. Looking at the format, the actual World Cup begins from the quarter-final stage and the Indians should fancy their chances of progressing further.
All other teams, including South Africa, can be beaten. Don’t be taken in by their form against a Windies attack. Just like India, the other so-called favourites have also struggled while playing away from home. But then, winning an ODI match is just like winning a lottery!