Problems aplenty

A sand sculpture to wish the Indian team good luck.-PTI

India steps into the World Cup apparently leaning on past glory as the immediate context is marred by losses in Australia and further aggravated through a fitness cloud hovering over a few players. The prefix to the team though would be ‘defending champion’ thanks to its title triumph back home in 2011.

The current dilemma stems from an inability to win even a single game in the tri-series that Australia clinched. Incidentally, India played four, lost three and had to rest content with a no-result due to a rain-marred outing in Sydney.

Look deeper into the past and you will stare at India’s 0-2 loss in the four-match Test series against Australia. Add to it the injury woes of Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and Bhuvneshwar Kumar (an injured Ishant Sharma has been replaced by Mohit Sharma) and the worry-bag brims over. Surely, not the ideal build-up despite M. S. Dhoni and company hollering loudly in a television commercial — “we won’t give it back.” A direct reference to the burning desire of retaining the Cup won in the last edition. Yet, it’s not as lost a battle as it seems.

A peek into history throws up mixed signs. In 1985, ahead of the Benson and Hedges World Championship of Cricket, India arrived in Australia after being humbled in its backyard by David Gower’s men. But Sunil Gavaskar’s troop bucked the odds, tore the form-book prediction and won the trophy after defeating Pakistan in the final.

One of the heroes of that campaign, or ‘Champion of Champions’, to be precise, is now the Indian team director and Ravi Shastri might dwell upon that golden run during his interactions with the ‘Men in Blue.’

By the same yardstick, prior to the 1992 World Cup, the last time Australia and New Zealand hosted the event, India again suffered losses Down Under and that wretched run extended into the premier tournament while minor consolation was drawn from a victory against Pakistan.

Cut to the present, though the stigma of defeat over the last few months might shadow the team, there is no mistaking the positive attitude that a relatively young outfit displayed in its skirmishes, primarily in the Test matches with Australia. Unlike past tours, India didn’t topple over but succumbed only after giving a good fight. Certainly this team, with its nucleus still drawn from the Test squad, is not overawed by the opposition on alien conditions despite a weak bowling unit. Part of the hope riding on Dhoni’s men, stems from the manner in which the groups are structured.

Placed in Pool B, all India needs to do to secure a quarterfinal berth is to primarily secure wins against Zimbabwe, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates. That is if the worst-possible scenario happens in which India loses to the others like South Africa, Pakistan and the West Indies. We are not discounting the minnows as Zimbabwe (1999) and Bangladesh (2007) have ruined India’s progress in the past. However, to expect these dark horses to be the proverbial banana peel for India, is to coat them with a needless veneer of strength while discounting the reigning champion’s ability.

And if the quarterfinal berth is assured, then it is about playing like men possessed in just three games — quarterfinal, semifinal and final — for India to achieve what is currently deemed as impossible.

The stumble in the Tri-Series should also be seen in the prism of the think-tank’s desire to try out different combinations, like for instance opening the attack with Stuart Binny or shuffling around with Virat Kohli’s batting slot.

Surely when the World Cup commences and for India it kicks-off with the mother of all face-offs — against Pakistan in Adelaide on February 15 — Dhoni’s men will offer a clearer picture of their potential to last the distance and their collective dream of holding onto the cup. With perhaps two of the best directors of chases within its ranks — Dhoni and Kohli — no one can pooh-pooh India. But for now, a quarterfinal berth is there to be seized.

* * * BOWLERS NEED TO KEEP IT TIGHT STRENGTHS

Like all Indian teams, this one too tends to put all its eggs in one basket: batting. With the likes of M. S. Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina in its ranks, the squad has men, who have done the requisite deed - be it mounting massive totals or staying abreast of steep pursuits. Yes, there are worries about Shikhar Dhawan's form or for that matter even about Kohli, who strung 9, 4, 3 not out & 8 in the tri-series but these are glitches that should be ironed out soon. Add to it Ambati Rayudu and bowlers who can bat like R. Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Stuart Binny and Ravindra Jadeja. India couldn't have asked for more.

WEAKNESSES

Bowling is a worry and it is a headache that has affected the squad for years. For all its batting might, India needs its bowlers to keep it tight. Remember the 2011 edition was won because Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel, to name a few, choked and also grabbed wickets. The present bunch needs to do that and in the seamer-friendly pitches of Australia and New Zealand, it is a lenient expectation.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar has injury concerns and the faster he recovers, the better it is for Dhoni to crystallise his strategies.

* * * PLAYERS TO WATCH

The Indian skipper's cool quotient will determine how far his team goes.-AP

M. S. Dhoni: The Indian skipper's cool quotient will determine how far his team goes. He may have relinquished his Test whites but there is no mistaking his greatness in ODIs. Dhoni's ability to whittle down a chase to its bare basics - balls and runs - and an immense self-belief to push it to the wire and take on the leadbowler in the last over makes for riveting viewing.

Virat Kohli: The legend of Kohli found its early roots in a terri?c assault on Lasith Malinga and other Sri Lankan bowlers in a CB Series game in Hobart in 2012. Kohli pulverised his way to an unbeaten 133 off 86 balls in a winning cause. Since then he has not looked back and despite a tepid show in the recent tri-series, Kohli will be the middle-order maestro upon whom India will bank on heavily.

R. Ashwin: It is a fallacy to see a greentop and presume that only pacers will prosper. Australia and New Zealand will favour seam but spin does play a role and Ashwin can be a vital cog. The off-spinner may well have a word with team director Ravi Shastri and Tamil Nadu senior L. Sivaramakrishnan, who spun well for India during its 1985 World Championship triumph.

* * * THE TEAM

M. S. Dhoni (captain; wicket-keeper), Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohit Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Stuart Binny and Umesh Yadav.

K. C. Vijaya Kumar