Can Dhoni & Co do it?

All set for the battle... Skipper M. S. Dhoni has a discussion with Rahul Dravid (centre) and Sachin Tendulkar. The presence of Dravid and Tendulkar is a big boost to India.-AP All set for the battle... Skipper M. S. Dhoni has a discussion with Rahul Dravid (centre) and Sachin Tendulkar. The presence of Dravid and Tendulkar is a big boost to India.

A lot is expected of India which has made significant strides in ODIs. How the team copes in the absence of Virender Sehwag remains to be seen. By S. Dinakar.

The ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa comes at a time when the debate on the future of one-day cricket is raging. There have been suggestions to split the innings or reduce the number of overs to 40 in order to preserve the one-day format.

The advent of Twenty20 cricket threatens the survival of one-day cricket in its present form. While some of the ODIs have been rather predictable and monotonous, there is no denying that the 50-overs-a-side game is a more comprehensive test of skills than the slam-bang Twenty20.

In one-day cricket, there is scope for the captain to attack with aggressive field settings in the early stages. Later on too, it is not uncommon to witness a spinner operating with a silly point and short-leg. The flexible Power Plays — tactical nous is called for here — too add an extra dimension to the one-day format. Even the much-maligned middle overs are a stage for considerable tactical byplay.

What one-day cricket actually requires is some lively wickets that will make the contest more balanced. The logic that runs and more runs alone will bring in the crowds is a misplaced one. The spectators want to see an intense battle between bat and ball and the pitches need to have bounce and carry. The spinners too would welcome the bounce.

The runs will have to be earned. If run-making becomes too easy, then the game will lose its intensity. Cricket is not about scoring fours and sixes alone.

The indications are that in the early part of the season in South Africa, the pitches at the Wanderers and Centurion — the two venues for the Champions Trophy — would have a fair amount of juice in them. The batsmen could be up against some probing pace bowling and spinners who are better off exploiting the bounce rather than relying on the wear and tear of the wicket.

Grouped along with Australia, Pakistan and the West Indies, India has a decent chance of progressing to the last-four stage from Group A. The top two teams — the Champions Trophy has been reduced to eight teams from this edition — from each group will advance to the semifinals.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men have made significant strides in ODIs of late. The side has a fair amount of batting firepower and depth. It will be well served by the technical excellence of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid in coping with bounce and movement in the early stages of a match.

The Indian batsmen were tested by a barrage of short-pitched deliveries in the ICC World Twenty20, but the presence of Tendulkar and Dravid in the Indian team for the Champions Trophy could prove a deterrent to the pacemen. To younger batsmen, Tendulkar and Dravid will serve as role models.

Along with the exemplary technicians, India also has big hitters such as Yuvraj Singh and Yusuf Pathan, who could be effectively used during the Power Play. How the side copes in the absence of Virender Sehwag — recovering from a shoulder surgery — remains to be seen.

Comeback man Aashish Nehra has stepped in well for the injured Zaheer Khan. The left-armer from Delhi is a more mature paceman these days. He swings the new ball at a lively pace and sends down precise yorkers in the end overs. He might have to shoulder a lot of responsibility at the Death.

The lanky Ishant Sharma would relish the lift in the South African pitches. And Rudra Pratap Singh would have fond memories of South Africa, courtesy IPL Season Two.

Harbhajan Singh could utilise the bounce in the surfaces. Whether India gives an opportunity to leggie Amit Mishra in the playing XI is a matter of conjecture. Particularly since Yuvraj is a much-improved left-arm spinner.

India, however, still lacks a full-fledged all-rounder. This is an area where Australia scores. Shane Watson, James Hopes, Mitchell Johnson and Cameron White add depth and options to the defending champion.

The Australian ODI side bristles with multi-dimensional cricketers. Yet, there are chinks in the Aussie batting line-up — the specialists are not always putting their hands up — and the team is short of quality spinners.

India’s meeting with Pakistan in a group match at Centurion is among the highlights of the Champions Trophy. Pakistan, a team of massive mood swings, can be a vibrant force on its day with match-winners such as Shahid Afridi, Umar Gul and Kamran Akmal in its ranks. Skipper Younus Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and Misbah-ul-Haq add weight to the batting while Gul, comeback man Mohammad Asif and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan form a group of incisive pacemen. And Afridi’s spin can turn games.

However, the Pakistani batting has come apart under pressure in the past. This line-up of shot-makers can be vulnerable to the moving ball.

The West Indies, torn by dispute between its cricket board and the leading players, has been forced to send a second-string team. While the side has a few useful cricketers in Darren Sammy, David Bernard and Devon Smith, it is hard to see the West Indies progressing beyond the group stage. This is sad for the competition since a full-fledged West Indian team would have made Group ‘A’ extremely interesting.

It should still be a close race between India, Australia and Pakistan for the two semifinal berths. India will have to be at the top of its game against the two worthy opponents and also ensure that it does not drop its guard against the West Indies. India and Australia are the more consistent teams but Pakistan can be dangerous on its day.

Group B will feature South Africa, Sri Lanka, England and New Zealand. Here, South Africa and Sri Lanka are the favourites to go through.

The Graeme Smith-led South Africa is a batting powerhouse with the skipper himself, Herschelle Gibbs and Abraham de Villiers capable of playing match-winning roles. The host has serious options in the pace bowling department — Dale Steyn and Wayne Parnell form an incisive right-left pair — and in left-armer van der Merwe, it has a spinner who can be effective in the abbreviated form of the game. The side possesses big-hitters down the order — Albie Morkel is an example — as well. However, South Africa has been undone by the big stage in the past. Its temperament will be under scrutiny again.

Sri Lanka is a versatile side led by a strong captain, Kumar Sangakkara. It is arguably the most complete side in the competition. Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera are solid, classical strokemakers.

Someone like the red hot Tillekaratne Dilshan can be destructive upfront while all-rounder Angelo Matthews has added meat to the lower order. And Sanath Jayasuriya can still be explosive.

Sri Lanka’s bowling is an exotic mix. Slinger Lasith Malinga’s pace, bounce and swing provide teeth to its attack and there could be able support for him from Nuwan Kulasekara, Thilan Tushara and Matthews. Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis should combine as a potent spin force.

England will miss Kevin Pietersen’s innovativeness and the all-round brilliance of Andrew Flintoff. The likes of skipper Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood, Stuart Broad and Greame Swann will still make England competitive but it is hard to see the side making the last-four stage.

Despite the return of the charismatic paceman, Shane Bond, and the presence of skipper and left-arm spinning all-rounder Daniel Vettori, New Zealand lacks depth in bowling. Brendon McCullum, Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor can be destructive with the bat, but have been dogged by inconsistent form. There is too much load on Vettori, the batsman and bowler. Like England, New Zealand would also struggle to enter the knock-out phase.