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Four matches. Three wins, one tied game and zero losses, sitting pretty at top of the group. That is India’s World Cup campaign so far. Yet at the end of their five-wicket win over the Netherlands in Delhi two days back, the loudest were groans – both from the fans and the media, alike. Television headlines immediately rattled off how the Men in Blue crawled to the finish line and the dailies next morning harped on the same, even throwing the slow win against Ireland at Bangalore for good measure. Fans too these days have a very loud voice – thanks to the internet and the power of social media – and none of them looked pleased.
To all who have been watching, it has been a dour display, one lacking in killer instinct against the lowly sides. Never mind the clinical revenge in Dhaka or the excitement of the England game, India haven’t exerted themselves as champions. That has been the complaint, almost formally lodged everywhere you go and talk about their prospects. The word ‘champions’ is a pointer of the anticipation – nay expectation – amongst the masses here, who expect nothing less from their players albeit a majority of the tournament remains to be played out and several contenders still stand. So the real question here is, having played the way they have until now, have Dhoni’s men hurt their own chances going forward?
The answer being looked herein is in the word momentum. They saw off a potential slip-up against Bangladesh, took the field against the Dutch and the Irish to not lose and got the points. But has the Indian team built up enough impetus in their campaign going into the last throws of their group, against South Africa and West Indies? Have they gathered enough steam to roll down those who stand up next in the knock-outs? Going by their display so far, the general opinion to these questions seems to be no. But there is a need to read between the lines here.
India have nearly never entered a World Cup with the sure tag of favourites. In 1996, they were buoyed enough by the conditions at home, for that team didn’t stand a chance if the event had been hosted elsewhere. The closest they came was in 2003, remaining second-best contenders to Australia. Even then, they started poorly and made the finals only after managing a winning-run since. Today that is not the case. They are playing in a tournament whose format has been fixed to make sure that they move beyond the initial stages and perhaps the team is returning the favour by not peaking too early.
Yes, allowing Bangladesh to score near-300 in their chase, not getting a result against England and winning by five wicket margins over Ireland and Netherlands have been a ploy to get the opposition(s) into thinking that this outfit is not anywhere close to being dominant. That part has probably been in wraps as the team moves from one venue to another, hoping that the group stage gets over early and that they can display their true wares at the right moment. Get all their fifteen players in top shape and ready ahead of the knock-out stage. This has to be the reasoning for there is none other that can explain Piyush Chawla getting a third straight game, while R Ashwin twiddles his thumbs having played none yet.
The explanation given by the Indian skipper doesn’t reflect how mentally strong Ashwin is. No, that can’t be judged away from the field and on short evidence as in his case. What it does confirm is that Chawla is low on confidence and form, and in a lot more fragile state than any other player, plus the think-tank only knows it too well. His two-wickets for forty-something against the Dutch will do no one any favours, maybe except him. For come the game against South Africa and India will again be struggling with the question of whether to play Ashwin now. Surely another pasting at Nagpur will end whatever remains of Chawla’s confidence and fire their ploy altogether.
More than ever it is time for MS Dhoni to get his eleven right, because truth be told, they are yet to beat a top-class opposition. For all their hoodwinking and slowly getting on the run to top-form, it doesn’t serve any purpose if they enter the quarter-finals having only beaten the minnows (and a tied game). That they woke up mid-way through the chase against England was partly down to this realization. The confidence that can ooze out after getting the better of South Africa and West Indies in their last run-ins of the first round will negate any opposition once the real business starts.
The good thing about their next tie is that South Africa will always give you a tough work-out. And now they have added incentive. The defeat against England wouldn’t have just hurt, it would have stung for their well-laid out bowling plans were unraveled by their insipid batting display. Before Graeme Smith goes out for toss, he will have known the results of the West Indies versus Ireland tie and how England fare against Bangladesh. The alternating forms of those two latter nations have complicated Group B, and ahead of the India game, the Africans might find the equation skewered a little for their liking.
Away from this unpredictability though will be some sureties emanating from Saturday’s game. We will know whether team India can rise from their slumber and trump a top side, thus justifying their easy pace. We will know if the current crop of South African players too has been scarred with choking at Chennai. Opening with spin in ODIs has been given a new lease of life by the Proteas, and we will surely know if they are brave enough to do that against the mighty Indian batsmen.
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)