What India must do to win the cup

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Being afraid of losing and wanting to win are different ball games, argues Suresh Menon

Illustration: Naorem Ashish

BALANCE IN CRICKET is not just about having the right mix of batsmen and bowlers or quick strikers and foundation-layers or wicket-takers and run-deniers. For India to win the World Cup, they will have to get the balance right in a larger sense. The onus will be on skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni to choose between the bold option and the safe one, to take risks and to show a positive flair that has been lacking in his captaincy for some time now. His experiences in South Africa, where he drew the Test series and lost the One-Day series 2-3, might have emboldened him; if so, then despite his batting failures, his preparation has been ideal.

One of his biggest challenges will be to rotate his players. Long gaps between matches are useful for the older players and the bowlers who need more recovery time, but match-fitness will be a key issue. And he will have to ensure that the fringe players get enough games so they are not caught off-guard if they have to replace someone in the team.

Indian captains have had to choose between the fear of losing and the desire to win. These may be semantically equivalent, but they are psychologically diverse situations. Fear of losing early causes a captain to put the opposition in as a defensive measure. In the 2003 final, Sourav Ganguly put Australia in so his batsmen wouldn’t have to take on their fast bowlers. Ricky Ponting showed his gratitude by making a stunning century and setting India a target of 360.

In 1996, Mohammad Azharuddin, despite knowing that the Eden Gardens wicket would degenerate, put Sri Lanka in, and Aravinda de Silva made him pay. Following crowd disturbances, the match was awarded to Sri Lanka, but by then India were out of it, their batsmen’s strange decision to sweep at everything costing them.

Should India play to its strengths or focus on covering up their deficiencies? This is another choice Dhoni has to make. It doesn’t take too much selfexamination to see that on Indian tracks, it is the batting that is bound to be superior, and the attempt should be to bat the opposition out of the game. India have already worked this out in recent months, but the temptation might still exist to play two specialist spinners in crucial games at the cost of a batsman. The lack of a medium pacer who can bat will be felt. Praveen Kumar hasn’t grown into that role despite having opened the innings for Uttar Pradesh. The bowling mantra for the shorter game is simple: play your best four bowlers, regardless of whether they are medium pacers or spinners.

Although India won the World Cup in 1983, it wasn’t until 2003 that they seemed to have a strategy for winning. In 1987, they assumed that the sheer momentum, and the fact that they were playing at home, would carry them through under the same captain who had inspired them four years earlier.

In Australia in 1992, they had their most pathetic plan — the fervent hope that opening batsman Krishnamachari Srikkanth would scatter the bowling in the first 15 overs and then the middle order would walk through the breach. In retrospect, England in 1999 was played at the peak of the match-fixing days, although no one had proof at the time. At least one senior player told me then, “There were some strange goings-on that confused me, and at no time were all of us on the same page.”

India must score extra 30-40 runs in order to make up for their fielding. Hence the team must be packed with batsmen

India’s biggest headache today is the fielding. They will have to score an extra 30 or 40 runs over the par score to make up for this. Hence the greater need to pack the team with batsmen. Especially since Yuvraj Singh and Yusuf Pathan (and possibly Virender Sehwag) can get in some useful overs. If it comes down to a choice between two players, therefore, the better fielder should be picked. There are only two fielders of roughly international standard in the team — Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina. A team with three medium pacers — the worst fielders in the side — will need two Tendulkars to make up for it! This is another balance the skipper has to get right.

India are once again the favourites to win the World Cup — a position they have been in at the past three editions of the tournament. How they managed to muck up their 2007 campaign is still a mystery. They lost to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and had to return home from the West Indies after the first round. Conspiracy theories were quickly aired. It was all the advertising money, they said. There was no fire in the belly, they said. The players had become smug and big-headed. It was all politics — you could take your pick.

YET, IT was a fine team that batted deep, had the bowling too, and the experience of having played together for a while. Somehow, the sums just didn’t add up, and the picture of senior players, many all-time greats, looking down and out is one the current lot will be trying to erase from our collective consciousness.

In the 15 months before the World Cup, India have played 37 matches and won 22 of them, so it is not mere sentiment that makes them one of the favourites. But playing at home means adopting a strategy that involves dealing with the excess pressure, media-created, advertising-sustained, and often selfgenerated too.

India’s key man will be Captain Cool Dhoni, one of the country’s most successful captains. His work before and behind the wickets will be as important as his inspiration factor. Over six weeks, there is the danger of peaking too early or leaving it till too late. Formula One champion Niki Lauda said the aim in his sport is to win while driving as slowly as possible. Dhoni must get the pace right, a final and crucial balance.

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