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By Chetan Narula
When the fixture list for this tournament was drawn a long time ago, the India-Ireland encounter was just another of those matches where the minnows would line-up against a powerhouse team, hoping to have a good day. If they did, it would just about make an impression of the progress they have made since the last time they played on the big stage and if not, well, no one would care much about it. Fifteen days into the 2011 World Cup and this is just not another game against the minnows.
Blame it on Kevin O’Brien’s girlfriend, for she wants him to chop off that pink-mop on his head. Any man who denies such a judgment on his appearance has to be brave and the way he stood up to the English challenge of 327 was but a mere reflection. None of those sixes were miss-hits or unimaginative swipes out of desperation. In fact, the most laudable part of his innings came after he had accomplished scoring the fastest hundred in a World Cup. There was still time, runs, balls and wickets to play for a win, even the English knew that. It could yet have gone wrong for his team but the sanity to close out dangers and mental toughness to cut out risks to pursue the finish line was the most refreshing part of the entire chase.
Of course he wasn’t alone in pulling off this coup. Alex Cusack, John Mooney and Trent Johnston were equally firm in finishing the chase the right way. In fact, one could pretty much write down the entire Irish eleven from that day here, such was their valour. It showed the steely resolve of this cricketing dwarf to push against its weight and make a desperate bid to stand up to be counted in the big league. Beating England might have been part of that grand plan all along. So when captain William Porterfield shot off a warning to India ahead of the Sunday clash, you would want to take him seriously despite his deep-purple coloured head.
The thing about that upset from a further Irish point of view is twofold. While it does embolden their spirit to hunt for two more wins in the league stage and stand a good chance of making it to the quarterfinals, it also puts added pressure on them. And truth be told, despite all their heroics, they are still minnows in the right sense of the word. Can they handle the pressure of dealing with a second team that is pursuing world champion dreams, two matches in a row? The big difference will be the insane atmosphere that will accompany this match. As compared to a near empty stadium, with the cheers of their own entourage being the loudest, they will now play in front of 34,000 fans who will be bleeding blue. It isn’t the easiest proposition in cricket!
Even so, it won’t be an easy task for India either. The tournament seems to have come a long way but having played only two matches so far, the co-hosts seem to have been hardly visible. It is an odd thing to say about a cricket team from this country, but that is the weird truth. They played first in Bangladesh and the hoopla of watching on television rarely transpires onto the field these days. Then the second game was a loss in more than just a point given away. That they couldn’t defend 338 properly ought to have been a slight dampener in the minds of those fans who already have them crowned champions. Yes, it was a dream batting wicket but world champion sides do not leak that many runs that early in the tournament, or ever. Period!
The one argument here would be that sometime earlier Australia made 434 yet lost in that ODI game. It is right in the sense that it was an extra-ordinary game that at Johannesburg against South Africa and perhaps the one at Bangalore against England will also go down in history as one, if it hasn’t already. But therein lies the point: India wouldn’t want to play another extra-ordinary game again so soon, especially against Ireland of all. They would happily do with an ordinary game, and by that one means, rounding off a simple, without frills win over their opposition.
You can almost understand why MS Dhoni and his boys would want so. Games against Ireland and Netherlands in such tournaments are testing grounds for a change in combination and after their hallowed tie in the last match, there is an ever more need to be testing out all their options before sterner tests against South Africa and West Indies come along. The big riddle continues to be the three pacers versus two spinners conundrum. It can’t be said that satisfactory results were achieved against England, for Piyush Chawla is your fourth bowler and he went for runs at a pretty bad time in that game. It would make the case for trying out R Ashwin, but would India want to opt for two off-spinners? The answer has to be yes now, for it is no at a later stage, then what was the point of having him in the squad in the first place?
Ashish Nehra being match fit again only adds to the situation. He too can come in for Chawla but again, the Irish might find his pace more to their liking than spin’s slower variations. In that scenario, whom would you want to drop – Zaheer Khan is an absolute no-no, Harbhajan too and that leaves out only Munaf Patel. And to be honest, he hasn’t done that badly just yet. One possible answer could be playing five bowlers – and countering the extreme batting conditions at M Chinnaswamy Stadium – but the Indian batting is the one thing that is working even more smoothly than a well-oiled machine. As it goes, don’t fix it if it isn’t broken!
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)