The Wills World Cup is the most open tournament since the quadrennial limited-overs world championship began in 1975. For thefirst time, there can be no clear favourites.
There are plus and minus points of playing at home. On balance I would rate India’s chances as good; nothing more and nothing less. But it is going to be very tough to win this title with so many strong contenders around, particularly Australia, who should pose the strongest challenge in our group. The problem for India playing at home is always the heightened expectations of the crowds here. And there is tremendous hype in the media surrounding this event, more than I have seen at any previous World Cup. All this can prove to be an extra burden on our cricketers.
The record books will show that Indian teams traditionally perform better abroad in one-day games, particularly our bowlers. This is because the conditions in both England and Australia are conducive to our medium-pace bowlers. This was proved by our victories both in the Prudential World Cup in England in 1983 and at the World Championship of Cricket Down Under two years later.
The plus point of our team is obviously its batting strength which, at least on paper, is very impressive. It does tend to centre on the explosive skills of Sachin Tendulkar in the opening slot. But let us not forget Navjot Singh Sidhu and skipper Mohammed Azharuddin. I feel Sidhu at number three is an excellent batsman, one of the most solid in the one-day game and after him Azhar is sure to set pulses racing with his glorious strokes.
Inevitably, one has to get back to Sachin. There is a debate about his opening the batting. It is, after all, the most crucial slot in one-day cricket because the loss of an early wicket puts the team under tremendous pressure. In that respect I see nothing wrong with Sachin taking first strike. In the limited overs game, more than in Test cricket, a team needs a blazing start and Sachin is just the man to take any bowling attack apart. Manoj Prabhakar at the other end provides the right balance before Sidhu and Azhar take charge.
The bowling to some extent does rely on Anil Kumble. But he has got plenty of support from Prabhakar and Javagal Srinath who form a useful opening attack with Venkatesh Prasad as the third string.
The team’s weakness is the lack of a good all-rounder coming in at number six or seven, someone who can throw his bat around with the overs running out. That is where we scored in 1983, with useful players like Madan Lal, Roger Binnyand, of course, the incomparable Kapil Dev.
Sure, one can’t replace someone of the calibre of Kapil overnight. Those we have in the squad today are not even 50 per cent of his worth. The current team is packed with specialists whose value pales in comparison with the so-called bits-and-pieces types. For each match we will have to decide whether to play a fifth bowler or get Sachin and Ajay Jadeja to chip in with their bowling. Fielding too is a cause for some concern. Our players are not as quick in the field as the team of ’83 and ’85 which was packed with superb fielders.
As for the captain himself, I feel Azhar has had time to grow and mature in this position having held it for six years now. Frankly, I have never really given much importance to the captain’s role apart from regularly delivering his pep talks. The same goes for the manager. After all, it is ultimately the performance on the field that counts.
So can we do it again? Can we regain the Cup we won 13 years ago? I really don’t want to stick my neck out. Obviously, I hope India does lift the trophy at Lahore on March 17. But as I said at the start: it’s not going to be easy. Good luck, boys!