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By the time one started writing this, Bangladesh were already out of the World Cup, having crashed to 78 all-out against South Africa. A straight forward implication is that we now know who the eight quarter-finalists are, just that the order and match-ups need to be decided. It is also nearly certain that India and Pakistan will not be playing in Ahmedabad and the former’s opponent will come from Australia, New Zealand or Sri Lanka. Sunday’s match though is about more than just that.
Ever since India began their campaign, the buzz has been about the knock-out stage. The format of the tournament is such that the Men in Blue could have had nightmarish games against main opponents, beat Bangladesh and the other two minnows, and yet make it through in fourth place. For, it was simply about winning ‘those three games’, this World Cup! Let us not be mistaken though, their journey so far has only been slightly better than stated above. They did beat the Tigers, the Dutch and the Irish, but those wins only came in a stutter. The tie with England and the loss to South Africa means that India are yet to beat a top cricket nation in a tournament they are hosting.
Thus shines the light on the match against West Indies at Chennai, the last first round game to be played. It will not be about points or who finishes where in the order. For the Windies it will be about beating a side better than them on paper and their fortunes have been dwindling over the last couple of decades to not matter much in the current context of things. Yet if they do pull off a win on Sunday, there will not be much doubt in labeling India’s World Cup campaign a near disaster. The Windies, as a whole, are hardly a high quality side on the big stage today.
Let one spell out the reasons why it will be so disappointing despite qualification. For the past month, we have sat and watched as one press conference after another, the entire country has been left to believe that the team is in no mood to peak early and lose steam when it matters most. You could almost understand this argument considering what lies ahead. But there needs to be a certain confidence in towing any particular line of thought and that dissipated with the defeat at Nagpur. People – fans and the media alike – have sat through doubtful bowling in Dhaka, a sleepy tie and a sputtering win at Bangalore, and some more of the latter repeated in Delhi, before the last over surrender to the Proteas. Clearly there is only so much belief that can emanate from trying to answer more questions than you started with.
Why did MS Dhoni bowl Ashish Nehra in the last over? There is no answer to that one of course, such things sometimes work and other times don’t. The one remaining over of Harbhajan Singh can be a solid argument herein, yes, but what if he had given away those runs. Would people have asked why not bowl a fast bowler instead of a spinner, and so fallen back on Nehra again? This is a vicious circle and let us just leave it at that. Instead, there is a straight, stubborn line of denial that has been drawn in front of R Ashwin and his supposed entry into the playing eleven. On the eve of a World Cup game at the off-spinner’s home ground, one wonders if there was ever a player in recent history whose non-inclusion has been so hotly debated.
Hopefully, the debate is at an end. Considering how the MA Chidambaram Stadium pitches have worn down, there is every chance Ashwin will make his World Cup debut soon enough. That would mean India going in with two off-spinners in the same eleven after some considerable passage of time, though it isn’t such a bad thing if they can take wickets in tandem. The other aspect of team line-up could be the captain’s jibe at his middle-order for throwing their wickets away against South Africa, and therefore it can also be expected that Suresh Raina could come in place of Yusuf Pathan. Ala Ashwin, Chennai is much like his (second) home. There is talk of Virender Sehwag’s knee not holding up well to go with his rib-injury and the decision to include him will only be taken just ahead of the match. Would it be such a bad idea to rest him nevertheless and see if Pathan has learnt his lesson from the last game?
To expect the Indian camp to do so would be asking too much. Such bravery is rarely exhibited in sub-continental cricket when confidence is at a high. And we are talking of a must-win game here. After harping about all the factors surrounding this game, and towing that last line further, beating West Indies is of paramount importance. Keeping up with the din about the three games – quarter-final, semi-final and final – indeed, it is those matches that matter what team will lift the cup. Yet the first round is about feeling good for any particular side. That hasn’t come about for India – it is certainly not in the air around them and one doubts if the players themselves are a bit edgy.
A win at Chennai, in front of capacity crowds, can erase those doubts. The big debate over playing the right combination would cease and then, in earnest, concentration can be directed towards the match at Ahmedabad. Having said that, certain questions do need to be answered on the morrow and the entire nation – team, fans and media – all need to radiate a certain aura of ascendancy going ahead. Sunday is when that sentiment needs to be found.
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)