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Cricket Special

THE LOOMING LOSS

It has been difficult for us. When the batsmen click the bowlers don’t. And when the bowlers do the batsmen don’t. We need to sort that out.”—MS Dhoni after yet another defeat against Australia in a warm-up match on 8 February

Back in 2013, just a few weeks after India defeated the world’s top teams to win the ICC Champions Trophy, Australia and England embarked on what was to be two mammoth back-to-back tours that seemed to risk utter boredom with any match featuring the two teams in the near future. In all, the two traditional rivals played 10 back- to-back Test matches, 10 ODIs and five T20s, apart from nine warm-up matches, over two tours one after the other that stretched for an incredible seven months, from 26 June 2013 to 2 February 2014. This was simply so that the English team could avoid what the Indian team is currently going through. England’s tour to Australia was originally planned for the winter of 2014–15, and if it hadn’t been brought forward and were England to progress to the final stages of the World Cup, it would have meant that England would be in Australia for a minimum of five months.

When it was announced that India would be touring Australia in that period instead, it had appeared to be a great idea. Having just won the Champions Trophy, India were already being propped up as a favourite to win the World Cup. And getting to play on Australia’s fast and bouncy pitches so close to the World Cup, as the argument went, was a great advantage.

The reality, however, has proved radically different. At the time of writing this, India’s team has been in Australia for almost three months, played 11 matches, both internationals and warm-ups, across formats, and failed to win any of them. The team is now a shadow of what it was in 2013, although many players remain the same. The team that now shows itself from match to match in Australia is listless and mentally exhausted. The batting order is unsettled and crumbling under the weight of expectations. The batsmen who had built formidable reputations over the years are woefully out of form. The bowlers have gone from bad to worse. The leading bowler is out of the tournament because of an injury. And many more seem to be carrying niggles although no team administrator has bothered to clear the air. In the early part of the Australian winter, the likes of Virat Kohli gave their opposition some lip. Now the team carries nothing but mumbling excuses of yet another failure. Far from deriving any advantage from the Australian tour, the team seems to have forgotten what a victory feels like. If India are to progress to the finals of the World Cup, the team will have to stick it out in Australia for another month and a half. Everyone, from former cricketing greats to those who have been associated with Indian cricket, is asking India to believe in themselves and their abilities. But can they? For some Indian players, the World Cup, even before its start, must already feel like an extension of their horrible Australian winter.

Who would say this is the champion side that held the Cup aloft at Wankhede in Mumbai four years ago?

Every four years, the Cricket World Cup arrives, bringing with it a distinct Indian chatter. Will India win this time? Will such and such score so many runs or take so many wickets? Can South Africa get rid of their choker tag? Every match is followed keenly in India, either on radio, TV or the web, from the first ball of play to the last, and even inconsequential fixtures are watched and discussed threadbare. But the 50-over One Day International is now increasingly a threatened species. It has neither the rush and glamour of T20s, nor the respectability of Test cricket. The tournament itself is far too long and filled with too many participants. The best part only starts in the knockout stages when the quarterfinals begin. But that will be on 18 March.

As it happens, India is the financial engine of cricket. The last time India won the tournament, it breathed fresh life and interest into the format. If India fail to qualify for the final stages of this tournament and keep performing poorly in the next few editions, the tournament could run into a commercial wall and end up scrapped. India’s performance is thus crucial not just for itself, but also for the survival of the format and its marquee tournament.

India’s biggest worry going into the World Cup, as countless statistics from the last few years and several experts say, is their bowling. The new ODI rules of two new balls and fewer outfield fielders cry out for specialist bowlers. Bits-and-piece bowlers who can be clobbered for easy runs and serve no purpose apart from completing a necessary quota of overs now have no place in a limited overs match. But Dhoni, far from strengthening his team’s bowling attack, wants to deplete it further it would seem. So far, he has expressed interest in picking two seam bowlers, two spinners who can bat—who it has to be said will likely be ineffective on Australian and New Zealand pitches—and Stuart Binny who can bat and bowl a bit. Otherwise, Dhoni has argued, the batting line-up would be too fragile. He says he has little faith in the batsmen that follow him.

Asked about that strategy, the former Indian player and coach Anshuman Gaekwad says it could leave the team intrinsically flawed. “You don’t hire a driver because he can also do some cooking. You hire him solely because he can drive,” Gaekwad says. “Dhoni should pick six batsmen and five bowlers. He has to put the onus of batting on the batsmen and the onus of bowling on the bowlers. That’s the only way out of this.” In the last few matches, Dhoni has not just opted for such a line-up, he has opened the bowling with the gentle pace of Binny and Kumar so that the faster bowlers and spinners can operate in the middle and death overs. Gaekwad adds, “You need to start with your best fast bowlers, the ones who can best utilise the new balls and are likely to take wickets.” According to WV Raman, the former Indian batsman and current coach of the Tamil Nadu team, if Dhoni goes ahead with such a bowling attack, he is asking for trouble. There is every chance that more than one bowler will be hit for plenty of runs in such a scenario. “Who then will Dhoni turn to? And I’m afraid however good the Indian batting line-up is, it will often have to chase or set up totals that are well beyond its capacity.” It’s bad enough that India’s bowling attack has suffered the setback of its spearhead Ishant Sharma being injured. Kumar, meanwhile, is bowling slower than he ever has, leading many to wonder if he is still unfit. The former Indian captain Ajit Wadekar says players can’t be picked on the hope that their fitness will improve as the tournament progresses. “Moreover, there is not a single strike bowler in the team. Bowlers who can ball wicket-to-wicket is alright, but you need someone who can take wickets. I can’t imagine what the likes of AB de Villiers will do to this bowling team.”

“India might have a terrific batting unit. In fact almost every team has a great batting unit,” says Raman, “But I believe in this World Cup, the difference between the two finalists and the rest of the competition will be the quality of bowling.” But the problem doesn’t lie just in India’s bowling. Even the much-vaunted batting line-up seems unsettled at the moment, with many batsmen out of form. One of the batting stars of last year, Rohit Sharma is returning from an injury, while his opening partner, Shikhar Dhawan, has been struggling for runs. Virat Kohli, who has built a splendid reputation as an ODI batsman over the past few years, hasn’t been able to score many runs in the shorter format in Australia, and has been moved to No 4 in the order, to shield him from the new ball. The rest of the batsmen haven’t done much. Ravindra Jadeja, apart from a solitary match against England in the recent series, has not played a single international match since early November last year.

According to Wadekar, the selectors have missed a trick in not selecting Yuvraj Singh. “He was back in the runs,” he says, “He was your star player last time, someone who galvanised the entire team into believing in themselves. He could have done it this time too.”

Some experts in the run-up to the tournament have been suggesting radical options. Sunil Gavaskar has asked India to drop Dhawan and open the batting with the spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, while Ian Chappell claims India could be well served by opening the batting with Rohit Sharma and Binny. “I don’t think we need to do anything radical with the batting. They have shown how good they are in the past,” says Wadekar, “I think we should just allow them to bat in their positions instead of tinkering too much with the batting order.”

If you examine the Indian squad, you will notice that only four among them—Dhoni, Kohli, Raina and Ashwin—have played a World Cup before. There is no Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan or Gautam Gambhir from the last edition. Apart from Dhoni and Kohli, there is arguably no established name. The selectors have stuck with most of their selected players for the last few years and tried to give them as much experience as possible. So despite the average age of the team being a relatively young 27, the squad, all combined, has played 1,242 matches, a healthy average of 83 matches per player. But now as they battle fitness issues and heavy losses on the trot, something that has not come together in such a deadly cocktail for several years, it’s unclear whether these players can overcome self doubt and emerge from their shells. “When I look at the team, I feel sad for them,” says Wadekar. “They have been away from home for so long. They must feel homesick now. And their confidence must be so low.”

According to cricket statistician Mohandas Menon, the statistics since last year show that India is unlikely to win the Cup: “The numbers don’t give India any chance. Some of the other teams in comparison are in great form. South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, according to the statistics, look the best to progress into the finals stages of the tournament. Among the Subcontinent teams, Sri Lanka look quite good.”

Of late, India’s Men in Blue have struggled on pitches beyond the Subcontinent. They got a drubbing last winter in New Zealand; India lost four ODI matches and tied one. The only Indian to score a century was Virat Kohli, with a batting average of 58.20. Apart from him, only Dhoni and Jadeja performed well as batsmen, with Dhoni scoring three half centuries with an average of 68, and Jadeja scoring two half centuries (average of 48.33). The likes of Rohit Sharma (average of 29), Suresh Raina (28), Shikhar Dhawan (20.25), Ambati Rayudu (28.50), Ajinkya Rahane (10.20) had miserable tours in comparison. The most glaring was the performance of India’s bowlers in helpful conditions. While Mohammed Shami did well, taking 11 wickets with a bowling average of 28.72, the performances of Varun Aaron (4 wickets with a bowling average of 40.75), Bhubaneshwar Kumar (4 wickets at 59.75), Ishant Sharma (2 wickets at 59), Jadeja (4 at 60.25), and R Ashwin (just 1 at 227) were hardly the stuff of World Cup aspirants. They were even worse just a month earlier in South Africa, where they were badly outplayed in two matches, with rain saving them a third embarrassment. Only Dhoni put up a fight. In the recent tri-series featuring Australia and England, apart from Rahane who scored a half century and Rohit Sharma who scored a century before being injured, no other Indian batsman was able to score much, and no Indian bowler other than Stuart Binny could take more than four wickets.

In contrast, South Africa look in devastating form. Since 2013, their top fast bowler Dale Steyn has been taking wickets at a bowling average of just 19.8, while their spinner Imran Tahir has a bowling economy of just 4.5. Both AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla have scored more than 2,000 runs in the last two years, with the former having scored a hundred in 31 balls just recently, the fastest ever in ODI history. Since the last World Cup, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara (4,529 runs) and Lasith Malinga (144 wickets) have the most runs and wickets, respectively.

According to Menon, India’s first game of the Cup— against Pakistan—will signal if the team can make it through. “If they defeat Pakistan, which is a strong team, they will progress to the quarter finals and possibly beyond that,” he predicts, “If they lose to it, which will be a first in a World Cup, India will probably struggle in the rest of the tournament.”

India does have what it takes. But, as Wadekar sums up, “I don’t doubt this team’s potential to win the World Cup. I just doubt if they can live up to it.”