You have to begin twenty-eight years ago when talking about India and World Cup in the same breath. When Kapil Dev and his bunch of merry men upset the West Indies’ applecart on a fine Lord’s afternoon in 1983, the world of cricket changed forever. Sample this: in two editions of the tournament prior in 1975 and 1979, no one expected them to achieve anything stellar. Neither the players themselves paid much attention to the shorter format of the game, nor could the BCCI be bothered. ODI cricket was not a priority – plain and simple!
Consider the six times this tournament has been played since; the one word that comes to your mind about the Indian team and its billion strong supporters’ community is expectation. Being crowned champion is considered a certainty before the tournament even begins and much judgment is passed on superb players lest they fail. And failed they have, if one can put it out in such cruel manner, for India hasn’t managed a repeat crowning moment since. The closest they came was in 2003 under Sourav Ganguly, when they lost in the finals to a rampaging Ricky Ponting ton. They made the semi-finals twice when the World Cup came to the sub-continent, in 1987 and 1996, falling prey to complacency and an under-prepared pitch respectively. In Australia-New Zealand in 1992 and in England in 1999, the task was much beyond their means. And let’s not even talk about what happened in 2007!
It is only understandable when the carnival comes to the sub-continent for a third time, that India will once again be rank favourites for the crown. The difference this year though emanates from their superb showing in the past couple of years, if not more. Ever since that T20 victory in South Africa under MS Dhoni, under the tutelage of Gary Kirsten, the Men in Blue have been on a steady upward curve. It has reflected more in the Test rankings than the ODI ones, primarily because their batting is lent more solidity with the experience of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman still available. Their last prolific one-day win was in Australia in early 2008, winning the CB Series against Australia and Sri Lanka, and since then, their limited-overs fortunes have only been of academic note.
Yet hope and trust must be placed in the young lot that have been picked to do the job now for their nation and here are their fifteen names: MS Dhoni (captain), Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Yusuf Pathan, Piyush Chawla, Harbhajan Singh, R Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, S Sreesanth and Munaf Patel.
India is perhaps the one team where the captain is not talked about first, for that honour goes to the one and only Sachin Tendulkar. Everything that can be said about him has been said, be it his form, runs or that it is his last World Cup. It cannot be stressed enough how important he is to this batting line-up, for he is the one with vast treasures of experience and the mind to put that to use. Others like Yuvraj and Sehwag are also quite richly experienced, as are also Dhoni and Gambhir, but none can draw water from that well as much as this man can. He witnessed the 1987 tournament as a youngster and then played in 1996. None in the current squad can boast of anything remotely similar. The ones named above will be busy jousting with their own form, after a spate of injuries or time spent away from ODIs or as in Dhoni’s case, a poor string of scores.
Then there are Kohli, Raina and Pathan. Among the three of them, they will be jousting for two places in the eleven. Even though at the start of the tournament it seems Raina will miss out for the first couple of games, fortunes can change in the blink of an eye on sub-continent pitches. Pathan, one believes, will always be ahead of the two unless he really loses the plot. He can more than turn his arm over and can change the game around quicker than you can read this sentence. On plain batting tracks, when the captains will be thinking about how effective the batting power-play can be, Pathan will be Dhoni’s weapon of choice be it to attack early in the innings, or as late as possible.
Playing at home poses a problem at the same time as it proves a boon for the batsmen. While the batting may flourish, the bowling will find it extra-hard to take ten opposition wickets or even simply contain them on run-laden pitches. It is not a judgment out of the blue but a pointer thrown up by India’s bowling problems being compounded when Zaheer Khan is unavailable or Harbhajan Singh is off-colour. Of course then it goes without saying that these two will hold the key when it comes to getting off those fifty overs without bother. The other problem herein is of the composition of the attack – whether to go in with three medium pacers or two.
Praveen Kumar’s injury is a loss in this context for he would have been a sure-shot starter with his ability to swing the white ball, prodigiously under lights. Sreesanth coming in is a re-assurance for he has been in good fettle since the South African tour and it sours the equation for both Munaf and Nehra. Only one can play for logic dictates that playing both in the first eleven means India go out with nine and a half fielders, and only nine batsmen. As concerns the spinners, if at all the think tank would want to play two spinners R Ashwin is likely to make way for Chawla’s leg spin to pair with Bhajji, for there are enough batsmen in the squad who can bowl off-spin.
All in all, when you look at this Indian squad, it cannot be said that everything depends on Sachin Tendulkar alone. Rest assured he will be there, making his presence felt, doing what he does best. But the others have to rally around him, do their bit, and make it a collective effort. Because beyond the intense media speculations and fans’ expectations, this is a team that gives the feel of champions!
© Cricket World 2011