India's return to form?

Print edition : March 14, 2003

After an indifferent start to its World Cup campaign, India has shown encouraging signs of returning to form.

IT is somewhat quiet on the home front now. The demonstrators who staged a mock funeral of Indian cricket in Kolkata, burnt posters of Saurav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag in Mumbai, vandalised Mohammad Kaif's residence in Allahabad and Rahul Dravid's car in Bangalore, in what can be described as nothing but appalling behaviour, have been silenced, at least for the moment. On February 17, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's message wishing the Indian team well in its World Cup campaign, during a joint sitting of the Houses of Parliament, met with derisive laughter from the Members. A week later, India's clinical victory over Zimbabwe and thrashing of minnows Namibia has renewed hope, perhaps, even among the sceptics.

Sachin Tendulkar, against Namibia.-KIM LUDBROOK/AFP

If the Indian cricket team is renowned for its unpredictable and inconsistent ways, it is the Indian cricket fan who has truly perfected these qualities. Some of the blame for the recent unsavoury behaviour of Indian fans must be placed on the shoulders of those involved in the unwarranted commercial and media hype surrounding the team in the lead-up to the event. There is no doubt that few Indian World Cup teams have generated as much buzz as the current team has through its on-field performances. But daily pronouncements for months prior to the event, from Bollywood stars and other entertainment personalities (some with a dismal knowledge of the game), extolling the virtues and prospects of the Indian team have only served to raise the expectations of the nation to most unreasonable levels.

But the team's forgettable showing in the first week did not help its cause. A miserable batting display against Holland and a 10-wicket drubbing at the hands of Australia threatened to send Ganguly's men packing even before the advertisers had unveiled the entire set of World Cup commercials featuring the `Men in Blue'. Indian fans, however, had something to cheer about in week two. A committed bowling and fielding display complemented an average batting performance, albeit a more responsible showing in the light of the team's recent form, to fashion a convincing 83-run win over Zimbabwe in Harare. On February 23, centuries by Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly helped India defeat Namibia by a massive margin of 181 runs.

It is imperative that India wins at least one of its two remaining encounters against England (on February 26) and Pakistan (on March 1) in order to reach the Super Six stage. India is starting to show positive signs at this crucial juncture but it must be noted that it has not faced a high-calibre opposition since the game against Australia. It will certainly be tested by England and Pakistan. The jury will still be out on India, at least until those games are over, but it might be useful to reflect on the team's performance thus far.

There are several positives that have emerged in week two but the most important of these is the resilient character demonstrated by Indians. The protests at home seem to have awakened the Indian team and it showed efficiency, commitment and cohesiveness in its last two fixtures. This was, perhaps, best symbolised by the football-style huddle the team went into after effecting a dismissal. Seeming to take a swipe at the fans and the media, Ganguly explained the psychology behind the huddle: "We realise we don't get much support from the outside."

After a long-drawn national debate on the subject, the team is finally utilising its best opening combination. Tendulkar appears to have found the touch that deserted him in 2002. With scores of 52, 36, 81 and 152 in India's first four games, he looks to be the axle around whom the team's fortunes will revolve. Though he may not be as spectacular in the first 15 overs as he once was, Tendulkar is clearly intent on early circumspection and occupation of the crease for long periods of time, an extremely heartening sign. Sehwag has been good in patches but has not gone on to impress in any of his innings. Though his century against Namibia was certainly helped by the poor quality of the opposition bowling, Ganguly will feel a little more confident after his ton. It remains to be seen how he performs against better sides. Dravid and Kaif played useful knocks against Zimbabwe but have not spent too much time in the middle. So too Yuvraj Singh, who has failed so far. Dinesh Mongia has threatened for 10 or 15 runs in each of the games and may be the person to lose his place if the team decides to add more balance through the inclusion of Sanjay Bangar or Ajit Agarkar.

Despite the convincing wins against Zimbabwe and Namibia, India's batsmen, barring Tendulkar, are yet to inspire confidence. The performances against Australia and Holland are too much in recent memory. A very strong start against Zimbabwe was flitted away by some extremely poor batting in the middle overs. The question to be asked is: Will the other batsmen be able to pick up the pieces if Tendulkar gets out early?

Batting looks to be the more dominating influence in the tournament so far and there is no reason to believe that the trend will change. The tracks are, by and large, batsmen-friendly and many are much slower than was initially thought. Most of the pitches have helped fast bowlers in the early part of the innings but, if they survive the early onslaught, batsmen look more than capable of controlling the tempo later in the innings. Brian Lara, Andrew Symonds and Herschelle Gibbs exhibited this with spectacular, well-paced centuries in the first week. In fact, Tendulkar too has paced all his innings extremely well - circumspection early and acceleration as the innings progresses. This is also vital since many countries are using part-time bowlers, and teams should expect to make maximum use of the overs allocated to non-regular bowlers.

India should stick to the Sehwag-Tendulkar opening combination but it might do well to show flexibility in the rest of the order. Specifically, Dravid should come in at number three if one of the openers is lost early. Wickets in hand in the last 15 or 20 overs will be crucial to batting sides in the tournament. As seen in the very first match, the explosive hitting of Ricardo Powell and Ramnaresh Sarwan in the end overs made a substantial difference for the West Indies. If an early wicket falls, Dravid should be the man for the team to build its innings around. If Sehwag and Tendulkar manage a sound start, then players such as Ganguly and Mongia can fill the No. 3 spot. India will do well to take a leaf out of the book of the Sri Lankans in this regard. If an early Lankan wicket falls, the team sends in Hashan Tillakaratne, a patient, industrious batsmen in the Dravid mould, at No. 3 with the idea that the rest of the team will bat around him.

India's bowlers have performed very efficiently in all the games except the Australian fixture. Javagal Srinath is bowling wonderfully well and demonstrating a fire in the belly that we are unaccustomed to. Ashish Nehra had a good spell against Zimbabwe, and Zaheer Khan's spell in the match against Namibia was very promising. Since the one-day series in New Zealand, Zaheer has been a bit off the boil but India will be looking mainly to him to bowl at the death against England and Pakistan. Srinath's excellent form with the new ball will encourage Ganguly to give him a long opening spell, which will add to Zaheer's responsibility in the end-overs. Harbhajan Singh gained valuable practice and picked up some wickets against the lower order of Zimbabwe and Namibia. Sehwag, Mongia and Yuvraj have shared the fifth bowling spot and though relatively successful against the lesser teams, they are largely untested against quality teams in pressure situations.

India definitely missed a trick with its team selection against Namibia. Anil Kumble, who can potentially play a very important role in India's upcoming matches, was deprived of some match practice. Given the surprising efficacy of spinners in this World Cup, India must consider playing Harbhajan and Kumble in certain games. Another worrying fact is that Sanjay Bangar and Ajit Agarkar have not even played one game so far. If the part-timer bowlers prove expensive, there may well come a stage when India will have to play only six batsmen and further augment its bowling by playing one of these all-rounders.

As the World Cup moves into the third week, the action will be at fever pitch. Australia aside, no other team looks certain at this stage of making the Super Six. Several crucial matches over the next few days will separate the men from the boys and will add plenty of intrigue to the proceedings. India's chances are delicately balanced and the team needs at least one more win to secure a berth in the next stage. After an indifferent start, the side has shown encouraging signs. Will this translate into bouquets or brickbats? Only time will tell.

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