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The onward marching sound of a mega sporting event like the World Cup are uncovered in measured degrees—distant drumbeats at first, then the swell of a pronounced brass comes into play, before the rich vibrato of a full orchestra overwhelms us. In India, the expected rallying cries around the advent of the 2019 Cricket World Cup have been drowned in the cacophony of a general election. Now that it is upon us, it’s the hour for a timehonoured routine and ritual—an inspection of Team India’s chances.
India’s rendezvous with global cricket competitions, more precisely, the World Cups, has been eventful. Whenever the national team has won a world title, it has come after high drama, against heavy odds, with even nature, with an unerring sense of occasion, seeing it fit to intervene. All six of India’s world titles have thrilling, suspenseful chapters preceding the final, exhilarating denouement, before captains Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni laid their hands on the silverware over the 30-year period between 1983 and 2013.
In 1983, when the Indian team, captained by the redoubtable Kapil Dev, landed in England, local bookmakers—fair representatives of English opinion—dismissed the Oriental charmers with 66-1 odds. Only Australia captain Kim Hughes saw India as the ‘dark horse’ in his crystal ball. India’s poor World Cup record till then was possibly responsible for the poor rating; strangely, the team’s win over the West Indies in the Berbice ODI in March 1983 that presaged the great triumph on June 25, 1983, was widely ignored. Defending champions West Indies were expected to duly complete a hat-trick of titles, but India stunned them twice to create that epoch-defining upset. The final played out like a well-scripted drama—India were shot out for 183 and looked no-hopers before the game turned on its head via Balwinder Singh Sandhu’s in-swinger to Greenidge, Kapil’s miraculous running catch to dismiss Viv Richards, three-wicket hauls by Madan Lal and Mohinder Amarnath. India fought itself out of darkness for its moment in the sun.
As if to prove that 1983 was no fluke, Gavaskar-led India clinched the World Championship of Cricket title two years later in Australia with a convincing performance that still raises goosebumps on Indian fans. This, too, after a former Australia captain advised fans not to back India and Pakistan. He wrote something like “oh boy, don’t put your hard earned money on India and Pakistan” in a booklet published before the tournament. Yet these very teams reached the final. Did that cruel prognosis of their ability fire the Indians up?
India’s next world title came after 17 years, in the form of the Champions Trophy. As the Ganguly-skippered in-form India and Sri Lanka clashed at the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo in 2002, rains intervened twice, and exactly at the same time, during the day-night final and when it was replayed afresh the next evening. A climatic quirk that picked out the finals!
Five years later, there was more drama as seniors Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly opted out of the 2007 ICC Twenty20 World Cup, to provide opportunities for youngsters, before a reluctant BCCI, which then looked askance at the shortest format, let the Indian team compete. M.S. Dhoni found himself wearing captain’s armband. At the India-Pakistan final, Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq, with his team needing six runs to win, attempted an ambitious paddle sweep, but managed only to give Sree Santh the dolliest of catches. A dramatic, close-run thing again.
In 2011, the benefits accrued from a superbly balanced team and Dhoni’s consummate skill as captain resulted in the 50-over World Cup win at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. India thus became the first-ever host nation to win the World Cup. The drama in this final began at the toss, where the coin had to be flipped twice. Then, surprisingly and uncharacteristically for a team in the final, Sri Lanka made four changes in the playing XI that had won the semi-final.
When rains bespattered the Champions Trophy final in Birmingham in 2013, much like 2002, and made it a 20-overs-a-side game, captain Dhoni made several unusual moves in the truncated match to clinch it for India. In the last six years, India haven’t won any world title, apart from lifting the Asia Cup and attaining the ICC No.1 ranks a couple of times. Indian fans and Virat Kohli might look into history and pray for some extra-normal circumstance—they always redound to India’s advantage—to impinge upon the proceedings, so that the tricolor once again flutters high at Lord’s on July 14. The team is capable of a good show; it will perhaps again need a defining oddity—why, all truly transcendental art is marked by one—to nudge it over the finishing line.
In the 15-member World Cup squad, Dhoni is the oldest—he turns 38 a day after India’s league engagements end—and the fourth oldest amongst all players picked, after South African Imran Tahir (40), West Indies’s Chris Gayle (39) and Pakistan’s Muhammed Hafeez (38). Significantly, Dhoni is THE most experienced player in the Cup, with 342 ODI caps, the second being Gayle’s 289. Can the talismanic Dhoni be the agent who breaks normality and triggers a propitious peculiarity?
India’s lucky charm or not, backed by an incredibly astute reading of the game and the match situation, Dhoni’s wisdom-laden guidance for Kohli, besides his role as a ‘finisher’ at No. 6 or 7 and as a quicksilver stumper, will be invaluable. He is the fulcrum on which this team functions. He will be standing closest to opponent batsmen while Kohli, with his brilliant out-fielding, may prowl the boundaries, as he often does. India’s winning song will be written to the tune of a Dhoni-Kohli harmony.
How good then is the Indian team? The batting line-up, till recently our unflinching backbone, suddenly doesn’t look that formidable. Led by Kohli, by common consent the best willow-wielder in the business and already an ODI legend, it also comprises Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, K.L. Rahul, the “three-dimensional” Vijay Shankar, Kedar Jadhav and the dependable Dhoni. Can Shankar, Jadhav and Pandya lend the team the same mid-innings solidity that Kohli, Yuvraj and Dhoni did in 2011? There is cause for a frown in the bowling too—there are only three specialist pacers: Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, if you discount Hardik Pandya, the ‘all-rounder’. Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, and Ravindra Jadeja are the three spinners. Some experts feel that in England, where unpredictable conditions—it can get warm and sunny to cold and drizzly in no time—mostly assist seamers, there should have been four specialist pacers.
“I’m not satisfied with both fast bowlers and spinners. Two things: One off-spinner and one leg-spinner should have been good enough; two, they should have had one more fast bowler. Three pacers are not enough for this World Cup. One off-spinner should have been there. What will India do when opponents play a side with many left-handers? R. Ashwin should have been there,” legendary off-spinner E.A.S. Prasanna tells Outlook.
Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Windies all have six left-handers each amongst their ranks (including a few bowlers); Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Bangladesh have five and England have four. And although Chinaman Kuldeep’s deliveries would be like off-spinners for right-handed batsmen, that wouldn’t compensate for the absence of a genuine off-spinner.
Former all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar concurs. “We didn’t need the same type of spinners, whether a Chinaman or a leg-spinner. An off-spinner was necessary. And if you are considering Jadhav as an off-spinner, then you are lying to yourself. Ashwin should have been there; he’s an all-rounder and a fighter, as seen in the IPL,” he says. The selectors have preferred the experienced Dinesh Karthik as the second wicket-keeper, leaving out big-hitting left-hander Rishabh Pant, a move that “baffles” former Pakistan captain Ramiz Raja.
The World Cup will be played in the second quarter of the English summer, with its temperamental rainy spells. England experienced one of hottest summers last year and that made the pitches dry. The ICC would surely try to provide sporting pitches. “I feel the pitches will be of a good standard but traditionally with overhead conditions in England there may be some encouragement and early help for seam and swing bowlers,” former India coach John Wright tells Outlook from New Zealand.
Quibbles over selection might remain, but all are unanimous that India are one of the top contenders. “India definitely have the game to win the World Cup. I’m just slightly worried about the batting, which is usually their strongest point, because in overcast seaming conditions their top order could be exposed. If the top order falters, the middle order, which does not boast of great names, can come under severe pressure. Bowling seems to cover all bases except Kuldeep’s [lack of] form. The spinners will have to get used to cold conditions and adjust quickly. All in all, they are firm favourites,” Ramiz tells Outlook from England. Wright agrees with Ramiz. “India will start a favourite and will do well, providing their middle-order batting performs and their spinners are as effective as they have been in the last year,” he says.
India’s fate could well be determined by how they fare in their first four games, against South Africa (June 5), defending champions Australia (June 9), New Zealand (June 13) and Pakistan (June 16)—in a tournament in which all 10 teams play against each other before the semi-finals. This long tournament demands consistency.
Host England, who have performed consistently in the last two years, are also billed as top favourites. Kohli’s team will have the advantage of having toured England last year with almost the same squad. Although India badly lost both the ODI and Test series, the consolation was Kohli’s roaring form. With 464 runs, he has been in great nick in this IPL as well. Rahul, the third opener, and Dhawan were the others who blazed through IPL with 593 and 510 runs respectively, while Shami (19 wickets), Chahal (18) and Bumrah (17) were top performers with the ball.
“India and England are looking like the teams to beat. India’s bowling has improved tremendously and that keeps them in the game all the time even if they misfire with the bat. The IPL’s timing, plus the resting window [23 days] after it ends seems just perfect to carry the momentum forward into the World Cup, where the boys would be battle-ready and body rested, both,” says Ramiz.
Apart from India and England, in-form Australia will pose a formidable challenge to all. They have won their last eight ODIs, including a surprise series win in India and a 5-0 whitewash of Pakistan in the UAE. South Africa, the West Indies and a young Pakistani team can be discounted at your own peril.
Prabhakar feels India need to begin well. “India should know how to bat in the first 10 overs and be able bowl the last 10 overs well. This is the tahzeeb [etiquette] of one-day cricket. It’s important what kind of start the openers provide,” he says. The openers’ performance will partly depend on match-day weather. If conditions are heavy, the ball will move appreciably in the air, testing openers/batsmen to the hilt, while it would be relatively easy to play on dry pitches. The Indians will have to be ready to face anything thrown at them—on the field and around it.
Both Ramiz and former India all-rounder Irfan Pathan stress that all the Indian WC-bound players are in touch with the game and remain fighting fit through the IPL. The 23-day gap between the IPL final (May 12) and the first World Cup match, on June 5, against South Africa, is crucial too “The players are playing cricket, even if it is T20 white ball cricket…. It is very important that those who have been selected should be in good touch, irrespective of how many runs they are scoring or how many wickets they are taking,” says Pathan.
For the record, India have played 75 matches in the World Cup since 1975 and have won 46 of them for a 61.33 per cent success. As many as 76 players have represented India so far.
This year’s all-play-all format was used only once in the 44-year World Cup history—in 1992 in Australia-New Zealand. Everyone has welcomed it and for young teams like Afghanistan, it’s a boon. “Definitely, it’s a good format and you’ll get to play all the competing teams. You’ll get more opportunities to prove yourself. It’s not like a team plays two-three matches and is knocked out,” emphasises Afghan star leg-spinner Rashid Khan. His batting colleague Asghar Afghani says this format provides an opportunity to a team to make a comeback if it commits mistakes early on. “Brilliant format; you’ve to be a champion side to beat all the ‘A’ teams to go on to be world champions. There’s no hiding behind the group format. You’ve to relentlessly be the best to beat the best and come up trumps,” says Ramiz.
Besides being relentlessly aggressive and resourceful, Kohli’s India may quietly be pursuing that slither of alchemy that drives teams onwards in a championship—a collective turnaround, or a stellar performance that ignites inspiration. That and a fortuitous touch that transforms Indian teams into an all-winning, well-lubricated juggernaut.