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By Suresh Menon
As I write this, there are 75 days, 16 hours and 46 minutes before the World Cup begins. Add another six weeks (give or take a few hours and minutes), and that’s when the final will be played. That’s just under four months from now.
As always, some teams will arrive in the subcontinent underprepared, others will come overprepared. How do you strike a balance? This is sport’s eternal question. Athletes ask themselves if they have worked hard enough, teams wonder if a few shocks along the way might not be useful.
India have looked so comfortable beating New Zealand in the home series, and that too without some of their top players that fans are unsure how to react. Is this the calm before the storm or the storm itself? Does it mean everything is on track or is it like that period of extreme serenity in a movie just before a bomb destroys a city? Has the lack of serious challenge been a challenge?
Despite their recent record (and especially the disaster in Bangladesh, where they lost 4-0), New Zealand have traditionally been in the top half of the list as a one-day team. Yet India have toyed with them. In fact they have lost so few wickets in the first three matches that the lower half of the batting has not been tested. That crucial all rounder’s slot at number seven is still open. Candidates have not had a proper screen test.
The question that bears asking is – is it a case of too much too soon?
Four months is a long time in sport, and if India hadn’t mucked up six World Cups after their one triumph in 1983 (well, five, actually; they were in the 2003 final), the question would not even have arisen. But peaking too soon is as much of a sin as leaving it till too late or never getting started at all. Sport is a strange beast. Timing is everything. Sportsmen, whether they put balls through hoops or dimpled spheres into small holes on green fields or attempt to perform faster, higher, stronger than before understand the essence of getting it right in the right place and at the right time.
India have more to lose at this World Cup than on the two occasions they have co-hosted the tournament before. The pressure as hosts, as one of the leading contenders, as a team looking for a proper ODI send-off to Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest ODI batsman ever will be greater this time. Expectations are certainly higher.
At the last World Cup, when they lost to Bangladesh, and then crashed out, the expressions on the faces of the stars of the team told their own story. Privately, many of them spoke about making it up to their fans four years later. That will only put extra pressure on them. But it could just as easily be the incentive needed to go all the way.
The series in South Africa (five ODIs) might just be the reality check, although playing on those tracks may not be the ideal preparation for playing at home. If India win, they will carry into the World Cup great confidence; if they lose, there is still time to regroup a month before the big event.
There is something to be said for going for a win every time the team takes the field. But in the build-up to a World Cup it is just as important to work towards getting the team balance exactly right. The remaining one-dayers against New Zealand should tie up the bowling just as the previous ones settled the batting line-up. Surprises are unlikely, and that’s not such a bad thing.