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By Partab Ramchand
A second place finish to South Africa in group B is par for the course as far as the Indian team is concerned. Four wins, one loss and a tie is a record that is neither here nor there and Dhoni and his men cannot be absolutely confident as they approach the quarterfinals. Their one big solace is that there is no single team that is looking as formidable as the Aussies for example in 2003 and 2007. To that extent it could still be an open World Cup and that is what most of the experts were saying at the start of the competition about a month ago.
There have been plus and minus points in the Indian campaign so far. On the eve of the tournament it was known that the batting was strong while the bowling and fielding were the weak links. Frequently the batting has covered up for the bowling and fielding and this was the scenario envisaged for the World Cup too. At first glance little blame can be attached to the batting. There have been five hundreds notched up by four batsmen – one is the highest score in the competition - two have scored in excess of 300 and one almost that number. The irritating batting collapses however have taken the sheen off the glorious batsmanship.
Too much has been achieved by too few and the repeated caving in of the middle order has predictably set off alarm bells. Thrice, against England, South Africa and West Indies has the top order given the team the perfect springboard from which to take off for a huge total and each time the rest of the batting has floundered - interestingly enough in the batting powerplays. On one occasion the Indians got off with a tie, on the second they went down in a last over finish and against the West Indies the latter slid even more sharply so that the Indians could complete a comfortable victory.
This does not augur well for the tougher matches to follow since from here on it is a knockout phase. One bad day at the office and the team will have to pack their bags and the Indians look vulnerable as the bowling and fielding woes continue. One change in the batting order is certainly called for. With the return of Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina should take the place of Yusuf Pathan. The latter has not been able to come up with his trademark big hitting and his choice of stroke has been repeatedly faulty. He has taken one wicket for 167 runs from 35 overs with his part time off spinners and the team can certainly do without his bowling especially now that Yuvraj Singh has joined the list of frontline bowlers. And when Pathan’s ability to hit sixes has all but vanished what else is there? If required Raina could turn his arm over with success as he did against the West Indies on Sunday, he is a much better bat and is electrifying in the field.
The team management took a lot of time to be convinced of Ravichandran Ashwin’s worth. Let there be no more doubt on this score. He is a spin bowler ideally suited for Fifty50 for he is difficult to get away besides always threatening to take a wicket. Add to this his swiftness in the field and his ability to score valuable runs late in the order and you have a complete package. Zaheeer Khan at the peak of his powers is a precious asset. When the ball is in his hand the fall of a wicket is imminent. With 15 wickets – one behind tournament leader Shahid Afridi - he has been the shining star in the bowling line- up. However the inability of Harbhajan Singh to get among the wickets and the manner in which Munaf Patel can be treated with disdain during the slog overs is a matter of concern. Making up for this has been the emergence of Yuvraj Singh as a frontline spinner. The only Indian with a five-wicket haul he has given the bowling more variety and the dependence on spin has given the Indians some sort of advantage over the other challengers who depend more on pace. There seems to be no end to the fielding worries though it is hoped that the exemplary work by Kohli and Raina will encourage the others to run and dive and leap to get to the ball.
Simply put the Indians will have to raise their playing levels in the knockout phase if they want to duplicate the feat of Kapil’s Devils 28 years ago.