India is defending champions but not favourites. They could be both if the World Cup were to stay on in India. But that is not to be. And now the surfaces and the composition rob India of its teeth, take away its strength. The world isn’t waiting to see what the champions come up with; they are not holding their breath at what India can do.
Teams ideally want to play eight batsmen and six bowlers. Only Australia and New Zealand when at full strength, and on paper, Sri Lanka, can claim to have that heavenly balance. The others must juggle skills, punch above their weight. India are in that category because their strength, slow bowling and the ability to bat against it, is no longer a major factor.
India’s bowling is a worry. Umesh Yadav and Mohd Shami have the ability but not the consistency and in the sentence is a lesson for all of young India. They must lead the challenge with the ball but with their inconsistency they wouldn’t make it to a top team at the World Cup. This tournament is going to be about early wickets because that is still the best way to prevent a late over carnage. India aren’t doing that and so have little to block the customary late overs assault. It hasn’t helped that the admirable Bhuvaneshwar Kumar has been a shadow of himself; jogging in to bowl and bowling like he is jogging in. His injury has hampered him and he doesn’t look himself.
Spin is not only India’s forte; it is also Dhoni’s comfort zone. When the ball stops and turns, he is buzzing around as a captain. Field placements become precise, overs are sneaked in from part-time bowlers in front of shackled batsmen, he is like the puppeteer. But Australia’s pitches, like its people, are hardy and in your face. You have to tackle the pitches to get something out of it and India’s bowlers fall short there. They want the pitch to be a friend and to be a friend here, you have to put in a lot.
It means the batsmen will also be under pressure to score a few more. They could well do that if they get a start because this can be an extremely threatening batting line-up if they get it. But India’s batsmen, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Suresh Raina, live on the edge. They can be thrilling, they can be match winners but they can leave quickly too. And that is why India depend so much on Virat Kohli, a potential great but rather too prone these days to go through scoring swings. Kohli in form, takes the pressure off everyone else and lifts this batting line-up. If there was only one item allowed on India’s wish-list, it would be the form of Kohli.
Ajinkya Rahane continues to impress, he could be one of the giants of the tournament, and you would back Dhoni to come good in a format in which he is among the greats. But that balance, which Yuvraj Singh provided in home conditions in2011 is a concern. Jadeja has to provide it. Or Stuart Binny. You wouldn’t pledge your inheritance on that.
Reaching the semi-final would be a good result, retaining the World Cup would merit a party that never ends.