Contradicting Sachin Tendulkar in this cricket crazy part of the world is blasphemous, almost. The master batsman thinks that the Indian squad for the ICC World Twenty20 in England is a well balanced one and consists of some of the best players of the shortest format of the game. He is further of the opinion that they will retain their crown when the two-week extravaganza gets over. Well, he is bang on with the first point but about the favourites tag, well, he is way off the mark!
And so are all those who think it will be an easy road for India to the finals and even there the opposition will just bend over, and let them take the crown. Yes, the opposition captains, too, are all of the opinion that India is one of the biggest contenders for winning the tournament. But frankly that is just gamesmanship and the truth is that almost all teams have caught up since the inaugural tournament in South Africa in 2007, and it is the most open cricket tournament in a long time, probably as far back as the 1999 ODI World Cup.
So, then, let us just explore the cause for such unfounded optimism. This is only the second time in Indian cricket history that we will be defending a world champions’ crown. The last time that happened was almost twenty two years ago and nothing much has changed, for the billion-strong cricket-mad community feels that there is no parallel to their selected fifteen when it comes to a willow, a white ball and two pairs of stumps placed twenty two yards apart. And they have good reason to believe so.
They have the best opening pair in modern day cricket, a strong middle order to back it up, a wily captain who inspires his lads like no other, a battery of all-rounders led by the belligerent Pathan brothers and one of the best bowling line-ups in the world. Then, why is one of the opposite opinion?
Take a look at the entire international T20 cricket India has player over the last twelve months. The bowling attack has given us reason to worry; they are leaking runs, Ishant and Zaheer, while taking wickets, which is not so in Test or ODI cricket. And that is just one aspect. The Indian Premier League has bolstered the confidence of Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma but that was when they were playing for money, or well, city based franchises. Hoards of fans united by national fervor all over their backs are a completely different proposition to please.
Meanwhile the IPL wasn’t that good for the rest of the batting line-up as MS Dhoni has lost his aggressive intent from the very outset and now needs a bit of a run-in to get going. Yuvraj Singh too didn’t exactly set the stage alight in South Africa barring his bowling in a couple of matches. But what good is bowling if you don’t have enough runs on the board and that will be the case for as long as Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are struggling with the bat. In the last year or so, many an Indian victories have been down to the efforts of these two and their lack of runs is deeply worrying.
Also take a look around and you will notice that there are many Yusuf Pathans around, and some of them are a shade more consistent. Australia have Shane Watson, South Africa have Albie Morkel, West Indies have Dwayne Bravo, England have Ravi Bopara, Pakistan have Shahid Afridi and, in the Sri Lankan and New Zealand line-ups almost any one can play that role of ‘matchwinner’ that Shane Warne marked up Yusuf for.
Moreover South Africa, New Zealand and Sri Lanka have equally potent attacks with a strong rider attached there as well. They have good quality spinners who can stop the batsmen in the middle overs. Now one is not belittling the Indian spin options in Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha, just that when was the last time they did the controlling job some one like Daniel Vettori, Muttiah Muralitharan or Johan Botha does.
Every one is beating round the bush feeling that playing the IPL right before the tournament was the best thing that could have happened to the defending champions. The glaring fact is that this squad has been playing non-stop for the last fifteen months. Being on the road may just start getting to the players. Probably that is the reason why Dhoni, Sehwag and Gambhir are not able to clear out their minds and get their touch back again. Maybe the fatigue factor is already creeping in. In what way can a tired and listless Indian team get on top of the rested and charged up Aussie team, a majority of whom skipped the IPL to prepare for the long summer ahead?
And we can only begin to talk about the top cricketing teams once we get to the super eights and the knock-outs. For even teams like Bangladesh and Ireland, in India’s group, are more than capable of causing an upset. One match gone awry and the whole tournament just goes away, for there is a noticeable difference in the knock-out fixtures decided by finishing first and second in the group stages.
2007 was not that long ago. A complacent Indian team has lost to Bangladesh in their first match of a World Cup before. When one spoke to the then India captain Rahul Dravid, in May 2008, reflecting on that crushing loss he said that it was a banana-skin game which caught the Indian team unawares.
2007 was also the year when Dhoni’s men triumphed. This Indian team, the defending T20 world champions, would do well to learn and not slip up, again!
© Cricket World 2009