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That only one of the two will progress to the semis is but the essence of this quarter-final clash. A second aspect is that India and Australia have never clashed at this stage of the tournament previously, wherein the stakes could yet go higher. And a third angle is brought in by the severe thrashing the Indians received when the two sides met in Johannesburg in 2003, also the last time they played in an ODI World Cup. While Sourav Ganguly and his men fell agonizingly close at the last hurdle, Ricky Ponting had the last laugh.
Of course Ganguly is long gone from the scene and Ponting nearly looks like walking in those footsteps. Let one begin with him only. Exactly two seasons ago, Kemar Roach rattled his defense with a quick bouncer and since then he hasn’t been pulling or hooking the ball very well. It is remarkable how confidence seeping out of one shot can be so reflective of a batsman’s poor form. Sachin Tendulkar struggled some time back with his cover drives and he cut it out, such was his concentration and genius. Ponting though is a mortal in comparison – and will always be, never mind his tall stack of runs – and hence has been struggling for quite some time now. Add to it the troubles that follow any captain whose form has trailed off and you get to a point where the Australian selectors must be thinking about when, and not whether?
So will that point be after this contest at Motera? The only surety herein is that the Australian team will make it bloody difficult for the Indians to make a positive answer of it. In three World Cups past, they have lost one match. That is a startling number yes, and it can be said that the streak could have ended sooner against Sri Lanka but for the rain. The point is not to belittle Pakistan’s win over them or in fact the record itself, rather it is to underline that the world has finally caught up and with alarming pace. Losing the Tests to England may have been a certainty but the ODIs were in balance till the Poms exhibited high fatigue. A 6-1 scoreline leading up to the World Cup can flatter any team and especially this one, where world class quality of previous years is in short supply. You can count the names on your fingers – Shane Watson, Brett Lee and Mike Hussey could have walked into that side. Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson are too moody to be availed that honour just yet, and for the sake of repetition, Ponting is already an erstwhile member of that club.
What will it take for India to beat them then? If this were an ideal tournament for the co-hosts – and by that one means in-line with their Test ranking of number one and ODI ranking of number two – they would have been decimating oppositions until now. That they haven’t is down majorly to a bowling attack that is low on resources, yet has been working overtime to make up for repetitive batting failures. It almost makes you question, how they have been able to stick to the top rankings for so long and makes you feel groggy on realizing what might happen when the stalwarts do leave. While Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman have done much work in Test cricket, the current context of debate is the contribution of Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan in their ODI fortunes. That the name Harbhajan Singh is missing from mention is but a pointer to start looking for where it went wrong.
Let it be said here that no blame for India’s sinusoidal form curve is being put on Bhajji alone. Not just yet! But sample these figures: Zaheer has taken fifteen wickets from six matches so far, while playing in those very matches the off-spinner has returned a mere six. It becomes all the more glaring when you consider that he picked three of those six wickets in one match alone, against South Africa. Of course he did bowl beautifully well at Nagpur that day and for a moment it stresses that statistics alone cannot judge how you have bowled. But to put the matter into context, Zaheer has been India’s lone hope of providing breakthroughs on pitches that are ideally not suitable for his kind of bowling. When your premier spinner – your strike bowler – returns three wickets in five matches at an economy of 4.5 (average) and a bowling average of 41.16, against Bangladesh, Ireland, Netherlands, West Indies and England, you know there is a problem inherent.
Perhaps it puts into context the experimentation with Piyush Chawla and the delay in getting R Ashwin into the mix. The latter is but an off-spinner and if one of their kind is nearly struggling, the logical option is to try something different and hence the impetus on getting Chawla’s leg-spin into shape. That he couldn’t get the confidence going is again a marker of India’s floundering bowling fortunes. Ashwin coming on and opening the bowling against West Indies could be an important point in the sense that it is hard to see him getting dropped from here on. The only question for the Ahmedabad clash thus being whether the think tank would want to go in with three spinners and just the one fast bowler?
Of course the above statement doesn’t imply dropping a batsman and playing five bowlers. That would be giving too much respect to the Aussies and more than anything else, it is a risky prospect given India’s tendency to crash in the last ten overs. No, that isn’t even an option and thus the toss up eventually might be between playing a third spinner or Munaf Patel. Perhaps, given those batting troubles, Dhoni would rather play both Suresh Raina and Yusuf Pathan, wishing they can both bowl ten overs each. But that reeks of a little desperation for a side that is still a pretty decent bet to win the World Cup.
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)