As part of a series of articles leading up to the World Cup, Cricket Web presents a daily review on the background, players and prospects a specific competing team, starting with the minnows and building up to the favourites. Today we feature India.
CW World Cup Countdown. Day 11 - India
07 Mar 2007
By: Sudeep Popat
Runners-up in the last edition of the World Cup, India go to the West Indies hardly as one of the favorites to lift the trophy for the first time since 1983. Their performance since 2003 has been average, and if it weren't for their two consecutive series wins coming into the tournament, they would have been far worse off than they are now.
Lead Up to the Tournament
After India successfully demolished England 5-1 at home last year, their fortunes turned and they have been on a slippery slope. With just eight wins out of their last 25 matches, it is not surprising that India isn't one of the favorites to lift World Cup 2007 anymore.
The downslide started on the tour to the West Indies, where India managed to win just the one match, in a series of five. The tour was the only time within the last year that Virender Sehwag looked dangerous enough, with two scores in the 90s. Ever since then, his performances have been downright terrible, which eventually even resulted in him losing his place in the side. Mohammad Kaif was efficient with the bat too during the series; however, he too faded away by the time the year ended. One of the very few positives that came out of the tour for India was Ajit Agarkar's return to form, as he scalped nine wickets at a miserly average.
India then failed to make it to the finals of the DLF Cup in Kuala Lumpur, also involving Australia and West Indies. Perhaps, they were a bit unlucky: missing out in their first match of the tournament, losing out by the D/L method after setting a target of 310, thanks especially to a returning Sachin Tendulkar's unbeaten century, and then the second match being abandoned due to rain (although it was unlikely that they could dig their way out of the hole they were in).
India's performances slumped even further, as they failed to make it to the semi-finals of the ICC Champions Trophy hosted at home, winning just one out of their three group stage matches, with no individual performances to boast of. As if things couldn't get any worse, they lost the following five-match series in South Africa 4-0 (the first match was abandoned). It was a rare occasion that not a single player managed to have a three-figure score against his name, while the Protean batsmen made merry against a bowling line-up that looked hardly close to penetrating the opposition batting line-up. By this point of time, there were several concerns expectedly raised, the primary being Sehwag's dry run with the bat and Irfan Pathan's facile bowling.
It was imperative that drastic changes be brought about, if India had to recover from their disastrous run, to be able to be worthy competition in the World Cup. Ironically, the return of Sourav Ganguly, exiled for almost a year, proved to be one of the catalysts that brought about a change in fortunes, at the best time India could hope for. Four half centuries from seven matches must now had cemented his place into the squad for at least months, if not years, to come. More importantly though, he played an important part in the two series wins, against West Indies and Sri Lanka at home, during which Tendulkar too showed glimpses of returning to form with a century and a half century to show to his name made with his customary class. That, coupled with impressive performances from the bowlers, especially Zaheer Khan, who for so long has showed promise in between his disappearances due to injuries, has put India in a much better position leading into the World Cup than one would have hoped at one stage. The question, however, is: can they continue, and improve upon their performances in the last couple of months, to after all end up being one of the contenders?
Players to Watch
In the first match India played after the 2003 World Cup, Yuvraj Singh scored his maiden one-day century. Since then he has scored six more, and has managed to be one of the most consistent batsmen over the time period, especially during the last two year with an average in the high 40s. He has gone on to finish innings and matches for India in an almost Bevan-esque way. Despite missing out on a chunk of India's games in the last three months, because of a ligament tear behind his left knee, he is still, without doubt, one of India's key batsmen in the World Cup.
Who would have thought Sourav Ganguly, controversially removed from the Indian side about a year back, would feature on the list of Indian players to watch out for the World Cup? It seemed as if Ganguly's career was well over at one stage, however poor performances from the Indian team, especially at the top order with Sehwag being out of form and a returning Tendulkar still struggling to get back close to his best, meant changes were required, and thus the recall of Ganguly. And there has been a stark different in the way Ganguly played before being exiled and has played since returning. He might not be as flamboyant as before, but he has still got the shots, and the hunger. Four half centuries in seven matches since returning is a testament to his ability as a one-day batsman, and it shouldn't be a surprise if he continues his form into the World Cup, and maybe even score a big one on the way.
Let's be frank: Zaheer Khan isn't the most consistent bowler in India. A large part of it has to do with the fact that he has been able to play just a little more than half the matches India has played since his debut, because of frequent injuries, the last of which had put him out of action for almost nine months. So what makes him be a player to watch, especially considering the fact he choked in the last World Cup final in the very first over? His last comeback has been different than most others from before, with 17 wickets in 10 matches at 23. It seems that he has finally found the best way he can bowl: in short spells. That not only prevents him from causing some damage to self, but also helps him to bowl in a way that he best bowls, with full impact. He could be quite a handful for the oppositions during this World Cup, especially left-handed batsmen whom he is known to have caused trouble since and before returning.
India boasts of arguably the best batting line-up there is currently in international cricket, and it is this that is its biggest strength going into the World Cup. Ganguly, Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are as good as it gets. Sure, Ganguly is still fresh from his return, Tendulkar is not close to his best after struggling through injury and Dravid hasn't been as consistent as he can be. But on paper, they are worth more than 30,000 international runs. Add to that the emerging Uthappa, and the finally consistent Yuvraj Singh and that is a formidable enough batting order to deal with the best of attacks on their day.
India has always had a world-class spin attack in Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble. However, their pace battery has never caught the appreciative eye of the critics. In long time though, India now have a decent enough pace attack in Zaheer, Ajit Agarkar, S Sreesanth and Munaf Patel that when on fire is capable to dismissing the opposition within 50 overs.
India's biggest weakness is by far inconsistency. They have been marred by it since a long time. It was partly overcame in the 2003 World Cup, however ever since then, especially within the last year, where India holds a 30% win record, it has seemingly come to plague them again.
There are a couple of other concerns. Sehwag hasn't had a decent bat in the middle, since what now seems to be an eternity. Averaging in the 20s in his last 25 matches, there is no doubt that he is not in form. Although India have their opening base covered, with the inclusion of Robin Uthappa, another hard-hitting aggressive batsmen in the same vein as Sehwag, it is likely that the protege might miss out to the senior player in most of the matches. Pathan's bowling has deteriorated over the course of the last 12 months too. Whether it is because he has had to concentrate more on batting, with his frequent promotions to the top order, or he has some technical errors, which have in the long run prevented him from being the next Wasim Akram, it is no secret that Pathan is not currently one of India's best 11 players.
Previous World Cups
Although India didn't perform two well in the first two World Cups, they astounded audience all over the world with their win over West Indies in the 1983 World Cup; this after looking in doubt to make it to the semi-finals with two defeats in a row (after two wins to start the tournament with though) and a score that read 5-17 against the minnows Zimbabwe. Kapil Dev's 175 in that group stage match was probably the defining moment of the tournament for India, as they went to win that particular match, then defeat Australia comprehensively to make it to the semi-finals and going on take out the home side to reach the finals. Even then India was least expected to actually win the cup, but the predictions were proved wrong as India managed to defend a small total of 183 against a formidable West Indian batting line-up.
Since then India hosted two World Cups, in 1987 and 1996, both of which they managed to reach the semi-finals of, but couldn't carry on. In between, 1992 was a poor campaign, with just two wins in the group stage. 1999 was again a disappointment, where losing out to South Africa and Zimbabwe proved costly, thus the team going into the Super Six with no carried-forward points. India's only other real chance to win the cup since 1983 came in 2003, where they made it to the finals, against Australia. They were, without a doubt, the second-best team in the tournament thanks largely to Tendulkar's exploits with the bat, and on an Australian day off, they could have easily beaten them to clinch a victory. However, they were demolished by Ricky Ponting and his men in the final, to a 125-run defeat.
1975: Group Stage
1979: Group Stage
1987: Semi-finalists - Lost to England
1992: Group Stage
1996: Semi-finalists - Lost to Sri Lanka
1999: Super Six Stage
2003: Runners-up - Lost to Australia
Judging by their performances over an entire year, India are far from consistent enough to make it to the semi-finals, and might have difficulty conquering some of their Super Eight oppositions. However, being the unpredictable side that they usually are, it wouldn't be too surprising if they do make it past the final eight. In any case though, it is highly unlikely that they can top their effort from the previous edition of the World Cup. Tendulkar was quoted as saying that winning this World Cup is the team's dream, but it would take a momentous effort if India has to fulfill this dream.
India World Cup Squad
R Dravid (captain), MS Dhoni (wicket-keeper), SR Tendulkar, AB Agarkar, SC Ganguly, Harbhajan Singh, KD Karthik, Z Khan, A Kumble, MM Patel, IK Pathan, V Sehwag, S Sreesanth, AR Uthappa, Yuvraj Singh.