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By Chetan Narula
When you look at India’s itinerary in the World Cup, it clearly dawns that they are the most favoured hosts of three. Of course it helps when one of the BCCI’s top administrators is the tournament commissioner and the resultant is a sizeable gap between most of their six first-round matches. As if that wasn’t enough, the Men in Blue play(ed) Bangladesh, Ireland and Netherlands within their first four games. Add that with the complexities involved in Group B, wherein England and South Africa can’t get their form right, West Indies are still only getting started, Bangladesh aren’t upsetting anyone and Ireland are fulfilling that promise, and it is easy to understand why India are sitting pretty at the top of the table.
A hard-earned win in Dhaka, a sensational tied game at Bangalore and a decently won one at the same place make up India’s results so far. It is not to say that against the Netherlands at Delhi, the tournament will start in earnest for them. But, perhaps, the urgency with which the other teams have been playing their cricket will begin to show up. Three days later they head to Nagpur to play South Africa and then onwards to Chennai to take on the West Indies eight days later. The game against the Proteas will be an important one in terms of deciding who finishes the group on top, for naturally by then, India would have already qualified for the next stage.
It will only be too good for retaining spectator interest and the television ratings, yes. That is what the ICC wanted after all, it is good for business. But the fact of the matter is India will not hit their straps until the knock-out stage lest they lose either of their last two matches. When one talks of near-urgency only with regards to the three days between games four and five, it is to say that MS Dhoni and his men have had a leisurely stroll in the park. Maybe it won’t hurt them, for the billion strong fan community will keep the players honest. Yet, in a championship of this magnitude it is not really advisable to have this much gap in between proper competitive match-ups.
There is a simple reasoning behind it. How do you tell what players have retained their form from the match gone past or indeed lost a bit of it? How much can you tell by innumerable practice sessions and indeed how many such nets can the team undergo? There is a best side to it all that any niggles carried by the players aren’t relayed from one week to another. In that light, it allows for a fully fit squad to come across a relative lowly opposition, a game where an upset maybe going a tad too far and a tough win would be asking for much. See it any which way, the Dutch will only want to put a strong display themselves at the Feroz Shah Kotla, giving India the best opportunity yet to experiment with their line-up.
That word – experiment – allows for a host of permutations and combinations. In their particular case, the Indian team should really be looking to test their bowling prowess. S Sreesanth was off colour against Bangladesh and Piyush Chawla has done enough in the last two games to be benched for the rest of the tournament. The latter’s woes with line and length against Ireland must have been heartening for R Ashwin, albeit it was his team getting the hit. If Chawla had done well at Bangalore, there is no way on earth he wouldn’t have played on the Kotla pitch – where the bounce is always a big doubt and slow bowlers come into play early. Now that he is pretty much out of the equation, Ashwin should make his World Cup debut. For any plausible reason, if he doesn’t now, then there is no other time to do it and see what his worth is.
The only way Chawla can get to play is when the word ‘rest’ comes hand in hand with experimentation. The think-tank might want to give a game off to their prime bowlers and such is the selection of this Indian squad that Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel and Harbhajan Singh, can all be rested against the Dutch. Even so, Dhoni will take the field with two fast bowlers and two spinners, his preferred line of attack so far. And once used, this word can be abused really. You can also want to rest Sachin Tendulkar’s old legs or Virender Sehwag’s hurt rib, and give a chance to Suresh Raina. Let him not be rusted and keep the others on their toes. Moreover let him be prepared if injury or ill-luck comes the team’s way later on, for the path to the crown will only get tougher from here on.
Perhaps this would have been one-game where even the skipper would have wanted for an extra wicket-keeper in the squad, just allowing him enough breathing space. Having said all of this though, Gary Kirsten would do well to remind his wards of the threat Ryan ten Doeschate and company posed to England at Nagpur. For coaches have no off-days, nor are they allowed experimenting much with their role-play. They have to keep watch all along and make sure no harm comes forth even in matches where snoozing ought to be a necessary option.
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)