The Cricket World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world, or so the Indians believe. Rio de Janeiro may not be in agreement. Yet due to the sheer prevalence of cricket in India, it is only fair that this World Cup Preview starts in India: the engine room driving cricket through the 21st century.
India are the current defending Champions after their 2011 success served to accompany their other victory in 1983. Even in the more forgettable campaign of 2003, the Indians still ground out an impressive second place finish. Historically, therefore, India are only behind Australia as the most successful side in World Cup history.
India’s World Cup, taking place in Australia and New Zealand, will kick-off against the old enemy, Pakistan – expect pyrotechnics. India and Pakistan love cricket as much as they dislike each other, so it’s always a tense occasion. While Pakistan has generally come out on top in the bilateral series, India has never lost a world cup match to Pakistan – a record that they will be under great pressure to maintain.
They can look forward to another tough group match against South Africa, another one of the pre-tournament favourites; however, the rest of the group should be smooth sailing against minnows such as the UAE or West Indies. Since a team only needs to come in the top 4 in their group to make it to the next round, this shouldn’t be much of a hurdle.
The Indian team is led by MS Dhoni, whose unorthodox decisions often demolish/inspire (delete as applicable) the team. He often makes strange bowling changes at crucial moments, such as bowling Ishant Sharma in the champions trophy final, or bowling Ashish Nehra in the final over of a crucial World Cup match. Depending on the success, or lack thereof, of these decisions, Dhoni is either described as a genius or a fool. A toss of a coin could determine how his tactics play out Down Under.
As always, the strength of the Indians lies in their batting. Despite the retirement of key players such Tendulkhar and the demise of others such as Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh, a new generation of batsmen have emerged. Spearheaded by the elegant, effervescent and effortlessly in control Virat Kohli, this new crop are ready to take the World Cup by storm. After a bad tour of England last year Kohli bounced back with runs against Sri Lanka and the West Indies and his current form in Australia is worthy of praise too high to draw comparison. Perhaps with the exception of Steve Smith, who is performing akin to Don Bradman reincarnate.
The sub-continent are spoilt for choice with opening batsmen as Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinka Rahane and Rohit Sharma have all been in decent form scoring centuries intermittently over the last few years. Dhawan is good at dominating the bowling initially, while Rahane has the elegant technique to survive and thrive against any bowling attack. Rohit Sharma, while inconsistent, has recently broken the world record for highest ODI score with his 264 against Sri Lanka. None, however, provide a guarantee of runs – whoever is chosen will be vulnerable against the best bowling attacks.
Suresh Raina scored 100 in 75 balls against England and seems to be improving every day. He’s very much a see the ball-hit the ball kind of player, and seems to have finally mastered both steps of that process! The skipper MS Dhoni, meanwhile, is an integral part of the middle order. He provides the counter-attacking talent that so often digs India out of holes from which they see no way out. Lower down the order, two of Jadeja, Ashwin and Stuart Binny will both provide some more than handy late-innings runs. Although the bowlers are definitely more comfortable with leather in hand than wood, the top 8 should ensure totals of over 300 more often than not.
Traditionally, India’s fielding has been the weakest aspect of their play. However, since the emergence of India’s new generation the fielding has been slick and tight. Unlike in past years, the boundary fielding will not be provide spectators with comedic moments. They are a well-drilled outfit.
The real problem – the one almost too painful to talk about – is the bowling. On countless occasions in recent seasons bowlers have capitulated under pressure towards the back-end of a run defence and start leaking runs like a slashed carotid artery. Outside of Asia this problem has been highlighted and with the World Cup taking place in Australia and New Zealand, this could place a great strain on the batting. Numerous bowling combinations have been tried, yet none of Sharma, Varun, Aaron have proved themselves capable. It would be fanciful to believe that this will have changed come 14 February.
With Kumar, Ashwin and Jadeja providing great control in the spin-bowling department it comes down to the volatile pace-men to take the wickets. Yet their inconsistency sometimes undermines the spinners. With a tendency to only play 3 out-and-out quick men, the pressure of getting it right every time is far greater than in teams who play 4 fast-bowlers: a vast majority of teams. When they get it right, the Indians have a formidable attack and can easily keep teams well under 270 – yet to say you wouldn’t bet your house on it is an understatement. You probably wouldn’t even put a monopoly house on it.
Overall, though, the outlook for India isn’t too grim at all. The batting and fielding seems to be world class and while the bowling remains unproven, it is a young line-up who are ready to prove their worth; to both their own fans the cricketing community at large. The batsmen are as talented as the bowlers are inconsistent; they will be a force to be reckoned with. On India’s day they can put any bowling line-up to the sword. If they do, India can progress deep into the tournament. If the bowlers are inconsistent, though, India’s chances of victory will be severely undermined.
A firm prediction? 2nd place.