World Cup 2023: Rohit Sharma’s India peaking at the right time, but don’t count out the rest

India may be firm favourites in the 2023 World Cup but has their task cut out against some strong sides from other countries.

Published : Oct 09, 2023 13:43 IST - 6 MINS READ

Being the host and having won the latest Asia Cup while all its vital cogs seemingly fell in place, India has topped the pundit’s list as the favourite. However World Cups can offer banana peels too.
Being the host and having won the latest Asia Cup while all its vital cogs seemingly fell in place, India has topped the pundit’s list as the favourite. However World Cups can offer banana peels too. | Photo Credit: AFP

Being the host and having won the latest Asia Cup while all its vital cogs seemingly fell in place, India has topped the pundit’s list as the favourite. However World Cups can offer banana peels too. | Photo Credit: AFP

The once-in-four-years battle for cricket’s top crown will soon be upon us. The World Cup, ever since the 1975 inaugural run in England, has offered stirring memories, rousing coups and cricketing excellence. The latest 13 th edition being held in India from October 5 to November 19, will criss-cross the nation, wheeling relentlessly through the coastal plains, the hinterland and a Himalayan outpost.

As a host, India had a feel of cricket’s top-dollar event in 1987, 1996 and 2011 but in all those phases, there were co-hosts from the Indian subcontinent. This time around, right from the time the first ball is bowled at Ahmedabad’s Narendra Modi Stadium to the last ball again being unleashed at the same venue, India will be the lone host.

Having won in 1983 with Kapil’s Devils reigning supreme at Lord’s, and in 2011 with M.S. Dhoni striking the winning six at a feverish Wankhede Stadium on an unforgettable April night, the Men in Blue do have a legacy to strengthen. Rohit Sharma’s men have slowly congregated in the last few months with key injured personnel making efficient comebacks, the prime being spearhead Jasprit Bumrah and batter K.L. Rahul, who will also double up as a wicket-keeper.

The duo’s performance in the recent Asia Cup in Sri Lanka, which India won, was from the top-drawer. Bumrah prised out early wickets while Rahul’s batting was fluent as well as combative when the situation demanded. Rohit and Shubman Gill atop the batting tree with Virat Kohli stepping in at three, is an enviable combine. A lot would also rest on the all-round strengths that Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja offer to the unit. Be it 1983 or 2011, the multi-skilled players proved to be the cornerstone for India’s success.

Remember, this is an outfit missing the services of the ebullient Rishabh Pant ever since his ghastly car accident. Pant is on his way back but it will take time and his X-factor would be missed. With the two Mohammeds — Siraj and Shami — adding potency to the pace attack besides Bumrah while Shardul Thakur remains in the mix, India does have a strong fast bowling unit. Siraj showed how dangerous he could be while blowing apart Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup final with a 6/21 spell, the fourth best by an Indian in ODIs. Among the twirly men, Kuldeep Yadav version 2.0 has been a revelation and he and his fellow spinners may have an unenviable task under night skies when the dew-factor will kick in. The selectors, by picking R. Ashwin for the ODIs against Australia, have bowled a googly and perhaps the wily off-spinner may be part of the final Indian squad for the World Cup. Pacers inflicting wounds and spinners holding tight in the middle-overs and quadrupling the pressure, could be a template.

Being the host and having won the latest Asia Cup while all its vital cogs seemingly fell in place, India has topped the pundit’s list as the favourite. However World Cups can offer banana peels too — Zimbabwe ambushed India in the 1999 edition while Bangladesh launched a heist in the 2007 version. Fancied teams often find themselves stuck against fired-up rivals itching to prove a point and this time around India too could find itself in such sticky corners. Plus the loss to Bangladesh in an Asia Cup fixture where Rohit and coach Rahul Dravid preferred to test the unit’s bench-strength, is still fresh in memory.

India has come a cropper in ICC events with the last major triumph being the Champions Trophy in 2013, and it is a bogey that the Men in Blue have to counter. Back in their backyard with packed stadiums rooting for them, Rohit’s troops can find enough adrenaline but shadowing that would be pressure too as even the room-service lad would whisper: “Sir, please win the Cup.” India too has opted for a nerve-busting travel schedule in a bid to keep diverse venues happy. The Cup surely matters but equally for many, the game against Pakistan at Ahmedabad on October 14 would be the one to lean on with nationalistic fervour.

Among the rest, fireworks have started in earnest. England’s Ben Stokes has returned to ODIs and just pummelled a 182 against New Zealand. Having played ‘Moses parting the seas’ at Lord’s in that 2019 humdinger World Cup final involving New Zealand, Stokes adds immeasurable value to the defending champion. Additionally he is familiar with Indian conditions through his dalliance in the IPL. Meanwhile New Zealand has not soared as much but with captain Kane Williamson’s return and an effective bunch of speedsters under his watch, the men from the Southern Hemisphere cannot be ignored.

Australia had nearly scuppered India’s chances in the 2011 championship before Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina joined forces to prevail in the quarterfinal. And as always, Australia offers a clear and present danger. Pat Cummins is an astute skipper and the old-guard of David Warner and Steve Smith are keen to prove a point. Add Glenn Maxwell and a few other explosive stars to that mix and surely Australia could go all the way. They did that in 1987 under Allan Border to lift the World Cup at Calcutta’s Eden Gardens.

Pakistan, with its chutzpah batters and gun fast bowlers, is a team that, when on song, can ambush the strongest rivals. Babar Azam and Shaheen Afridi have to strike a tandem like how it was in the Imran Khan-Javed Miandad era. And despite being ejected from the Asia Cup, Pakistan remains the number one team (at the time of going to press) in the ICC ODI rankings. Surely Babar’s men have done something right. Sri Lanka too had a long winning streak before its meltdown against India in Colombo and the Emerald Isle can always punch above its weight.

South Africa, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Netherlands can have their moments under the floodlights. The first-named often fails in ICC events but in Heinrich Klassen South Africa has a phenomenal batter. That they just defeated Australia 3-2 in an ODI series back home will hold the Proteas in good stead. Bangladesh has always been a tricky opposition, often using spin as a decoy with Shakib Al Hasan being the talisman.

For perspective, don’t go beyond Afghanistan. This is a team that has men coping with excruciating trauma back in their country; and still, to focus on the turf and play a sport with gusto takes remarkable steel in their spines. And Netherlands is here on merit and its strengths cannot be discounted. Remember, the West Indies failed to qualify — such is the growth among other countries and such is the freefall by the men from the Caribbean.

India leading the pack with England and the rest snapping at its heels could be the World Cup’s tale while fans across the country are still seeking their tickets in an eco-system that tends to put the key stakeholder — the game’s lover — as the last priority. At a larger level, this World Cup will also offer a pointer to the overall health of ODIs, while T20s remain on the ascendant with Tests still being the Holy Grail.

World Cups aren’t always about the winner, it is also about fresh players making an impression, senior cricketers bowing out and the resultant change of guard. Keep an eye out for the thrills and the spills. Some matches will threaten nerves and nails, and also keep that tissue-box handy — sport can excite and equally it can be a moving experience.

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