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By Chetan Narula
The buzz has grown ever louder and has become a din - that is if you go by the resplendent opening ceremony in Dhaka. But the 2011 World Cup will make its first real presence felt on Saturday when India clash with Bangladesh in the opening game. Come to think of it, after the much maligned West Indies experience four years ago, this could be quite an electric start to an event where the ODI format can regain its somewhat lost glory – in front of patronising crowds at the grounds and million others watching on television. Of course a lot of difference would be made if India were to do well and advance to the later stages. And what better way to do that than to beat their nemesis from last time around – Bangaldesh!
So let us look at the fifteen names chosen to make sure that does happen: MS Dhoni (captain & wicket-keeper), Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Virat Kohli, Yusuf Pathan, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, S Sreesanth (in place of Praveen Kumar), R Ashwin, Piyush Chawla, Munaf Patel and Ashish Nehra.
One would want to begin with the bowling attack, going from bottom to top in what should be a first playing eleven when the Men in Blue take the field on February 19. Zaheer Khan is a firm yes, for there is no other bowler in the country today who is assured of his place in the side more than him, if fit. The last two words put a bit of a dampener on plans but it is hoped that he maintains his good record this season and chooses to hurt himself only post-World Cup, if he must at all. Praveen Kumar would have been an apt strike bowler with Zak first up; he can swing the ball in the morning, in the afternoon or in the lights – whenever India might be bowling in the tournament – and that is a gift many young pacemen in this country are losing out on. But he is not available and so what do you do? Play the very man who has been brought in to replace him – S Sreesanth. Everything that Praveen could do, the Kerala paceman can do as well, with a lot more fire, and he put up an ample showing recently. Only thing (as always) is his need to keep his head. Given that the tournament is played out over a long-drawn format that is easier said than done!
That Sreesanth is a better fielder than both Munaf Patel and Ashish Nehra is also why he must be in the first eleven. For playing the latter duo means India goes in with only nine batsmen a half batsmen and more importantly only nine fielders. The big question here being would India want to play three fast bowlers? Judging by the form displayed by the slow bowlers in the warm-up games, the answer would be yes in the immediate context. However in the longer run, it ought to be decided on the basis of opposition. Against Bangladesh, Ireland and Netherlands, playing an extra fast bowler would be the way - a sort of a testing ground - whereas England, South Africa and West Indies would not want to face two full-time spinners along with quite a few part-time ones.
Even so, that is no easy selection. It would be very tough to say that Harbhajan Singh would be sitting out unless injured and to be honest, he seems to have been rejuvenated whilst touring South Africa. His spells in the drawn Test series and the ensuing ODIs have raised visions of a Bhajji we only remember from the past and didn’t see for much of 2009 or 2010. In that light it can only be hoped that he continues in the same vein on returning home for the big tournament and that will invariably lighten the load on Piyush Chawla and R Ashwin. Now the toss-up between them seems to land in the former’s favour to begin with. Although warm-ups are a different deal than the real action, his ability to induce bounce and turn hasn’t gone unnoticed. Also the factor remains that Ashwin might lose out because the part-timers more or less all bowl off-spin and there would be a want for variation.
The main job of those batsmen willing to turn their arms, namely Yusuf Pathan and Yuvraj Singh, would be to score runs. Whilst it is for certain that skipper MS Dhoni thinks very highly of Yuvraj still (and he should, thus imparting all the confidence the left hander needs), Yusuf ascertained his position in the line-up in Africa. Unless he really loses the plot from here on, he is a certainty in each of India’s matches and would help inculcate the fear factor in the opposition from lower down the order. The main point of contention as regards the batting line-up remains the call between Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina. Kohli has played himself in a strong position and Raina looked good batting at Chennai. But again, his quick scoring in a simple warm-up match against a mediocre bowling attack seemed nothing more than glorified batting practice. Hence, unless something goes wrong just ahead of the toss, expect Virat to make his ODI World Cup debut.
The rest select themselves – Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag to open and Gautam Gambhir to come in at number three, followed by a floating Dhoni. It bears the look of a solid batting order, one which hasn’t been messed around with, unlike what it was in 2007. Four years on, it is a new beginning. Should India win their first game, it would then be a good beginning. And as the age old cliché goes, well begun is half done!
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)