February 23, 2007

2007 World Cup: India's Hopes Soar

By H Natarajan

Australia’s sensational loss of form that has resulted in five successive and stunning defeats has significantly narrowed the gap between the main contenders for the 2007 World Cup.

Coinciding with Australia’s dip is India’s soaring fortunes. Back to back one-day series victories against the West Indies and Sri Lanka have lifted India from the quicksand of despair. The resurgence of the team has a lot to do with many of the top guns finding form, raising India’s hopes at the cricketing feast in the Caribbean.

What are the factors for the dramatic turnaround?

One of the most unexpected gains for India is Sourav Ganguly’s phoenix-like act. Coming back from one of the most ignominious exits in Indian cricket, Ganguly transformed himself from a pariah to a messiah in a manner that has, arguably, no parallels in Indian cricket. Since fighting his way back into the National one-day team, he has posted successive ODI scores of 98, 13, 68, 62, 48 and 58 not out for an average of 69 plus. The Man of the Series Award against Sri Lanka, just ahead of the World Cup, has come as the icing on his personal victory cake.

Ganguly’s strong comeback provides India with two goodies: Firstly, he gives India the solidity at the top which has been missing for a while. Secondly, he offers Rahul Dravid the option of a meaningful bowling support.

The dressing room can wear a mournful look if it has players struggling to save their careers. That feeling is heightened when a senior player is in the grip of such a struggle. One can imagine the negative air in the Indian dressing room that had a plethora of players in such a predicament till recently – notably among them being Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar.

Tendulkar’s travails have been a bit too long. It came to such a stage that the decibel level against him was rising by the day. The near-immunity from criticism that he enjoyed at the pomp of his career seems a memory of a distant past. Great players can never be written off easily and Tendulkar has given evidence of that with scores of 55, 31, 0, 60, 100*, 54 and 1 in his last seven ODI outings. And amid those scores he also hammered 105 and 43 in Mumbai’s triumph in the Ranji Trophy final which reconfirmed that he is breaking free from the shackles imposed by crisis of confidence.

The horrendous run of scores by Virender Sehwag - he had just one innings of over 20 in his 12 ODIs prior to the Vizag ODI against Sri Lanka - was one of the biggest headaches, if not the biggest, for India. An in-form Sehwag can change the fortunes of a game in double-quick time with his imperious stroke-making. At his best, he has scant respect for the quality of the bowling, the reputation of the bowler, the vagaries of the wicket, or the state of the match. The selectors and team management have made no bones in their favoured treatment of Sehwag. Every ruse – however unconvincing – was trotted out to justify his selection. And that gamble finally paid off when he scored 46 off 44 balls against Sri Lanka in the final ODI leading into the World Cup. Whether this gives him the much-needed self-belief to find his lost touch or whether it’s just bear market rally – to use a stock market terminology – remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it’s still adds up to the plusses when India embark on World Cup campaign.

The Vizag ODI also saw Yuvraj Singh’s emphatic return as a match-winning batsman as the left-hander scored an unbeaten 95 off just 83 balls.

If the famed Indian batting plays to its potential, no team can be safe even with a 325-plus total. Importantly, the team has both quality and quantity in terms of firepower. In Sehwag, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and young gun Robin Uthappa, India have three bazookas. Bearing testimonies to which are their strike-rates: Sehwag 96.04, Dhoni 98.49 and Uthappa 114.34. Not too many teams have such destructive arsenal. Add to that list are Ganguly’s proven track record for hitting sixes, Tendulkar’s aggression and Yuvraj’s big-hitting prowess, and you get a picture of the potential danger this team can pose.

The quadrennial showpiece is the biggest stage for the abridged version of the game where experience can and will play a big part. Tendulkar, going into his fifth World Cup, Ganguly and Dravid offer between them the collective wisdom of 977 ODI appearances spanning well over a decade that has produced 75 hundreds and 217 half-centuries. This wealth of experience to the batting is further enhanced by Sehwag (167 ODIs) and Yuvraj (163 ODIs) and Dhoni (66 ODIs).

The Indian bowling may lack the bite that some of the other teams have, but in Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar, Irfan Pathan, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh the team has five bowlers who have each got over 100 wickets in ODIs. In fact, only six members of the team - Dhoni, Pathan, Munaf Patel, S Sreesanth and Dinesh Karthik, do not have World Cup experience.

If Pathan and Harbhajan are able to regain their bowling form, India can be among the front-runners to win the World Cup.

The one serious concern for the side as a whole is fielding. The price of having so many experienced players has meant a few ageing limbs. Dravid’s captaincy will be tested in hiding these players – not easy as there are far too many in that category in the vast expanse of the field. The absence of Mohammad Kaif and Suresh Raina, two players who have been a fixture in recent one-day squads, is going to be felt.

But warts and all, I still fancy India’s chances in the 2007 edition.


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