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From World Cup champions to underdogs: India’s transition is now complete

New Delhi, Ashish Magotra (Firstpost ): In 2011, India were playing at home; in conditions that favoured our bowling attack; in conditions that our experienced batting line-up (Sehwag, Gambhir, Kohli, Tendulkar, Yuvraj, Raina, Dhoni) were used to and the schedule was ‘rigged’ or ‘tricked’ to ensure that all the top teams had the best chance of making the quaterfinals and avoiding a repeat of the 2007 World Cup.It was clear that India had a very good chance of winning the tournament. It made perfect sense.

File picture of India cricketers. Getty

File picture of India cricketers. GettyFile picture of India cricketers. Getty
Now, four years later – India have just gone through a nightmare tour of Australia where they failed to win a single match. They finally managed to win a game (their first in almost three months) — but it came against Afghanistan in their final warm-up match. The conditions don’t suit the bowling attack, which has lost it’s most experienced campaigner Ishant Sharma to injury. The batting line-up is now devoid of Sehwag, Gambhir, Tendulkar and Yuvraj but the ‘rigged’ or ‘tricked’ schedule continues to give them hope by making the path to the quarters as easy as possible.

In other words, their transition from champions to underdogs is now complete. If someone asks you to honestly assess India’s chances in the tournament, what would your answer be?
Would you like Srinath (India have the best batting line-up), Ganguly (I won’t be surprised if India reach the final), Tendulkar (India is ready to defend) and Clarke (India will be tough to beat) voice the popular opinion and say that India have it all going for them?

Or would you be in the minority like Mohinder Amarnath — hero of India’s 1983 World Cup triumph — say that India haven’t looked like a champion side.

The thing that strikes you about this Indian batting line-up is the inconsistency. You are never quite sure when Shikhar Dhawan or Rohit Sharma will click. Virat Kohli’s form in the ODIs after a great Test series has been a big let-down but you expect him to come good. Ajinkya Rahane hasn’t quite found his feet in ODI cricket, Dhoni’s form has been patchy ever since October, Rayudu is in and out of the squad, Binny still doesn’t have Dhoni’s confidence and the tail is non-existent in Australian conditions.
In the past you could count on someone in the squad to come good. Now, we have days when we just collapse. Part of the problem is also the pressure that is put on the batting — not by the opposition — but by their own bowling. Even the team recognises that the bowling is their weak suit and it means that they need to go out and get the absolute maximum possible.

Ishant’s injury means that India are missing a vital component. Bhuvneshwar has recovered from injury but has not been able to swing the ball in Australia — he may be a doubt for the game against Pakistan and has not trained in the nets.
That leaves us with Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Shami, Mohit Sharma and Binny. Of the four mentioned — Umesh and Shami have a radar that has constantly malfunctioned, Mohit (who came in for Ishant and wasn’t part of the original 15) is now suddenly a better option than Bhuvneshwar and Binny’s (lack of) pace means he will never be a genuine threat.

The spinners can do a job — Akshar Patel can keep things tight, Ravindra Jadeja can do the same and Ravinchandran Ashwin can provide some mystery but given the conditions they will be expected to play a secondary role. The hard yards will need to be done by the pacemen but India clearly lack quality in that department.

Still, India have a chance but that slim window of opportunity owes more to the paucity of strong cricketing nations than anything else. India is in Group B along with South Africa, Pakistan, West Indies, Ireland, Zimbabwe and UAE. South Africa are the standout team in this group and despite all their troubles, India still seems stronger Pakistan and the rest of the teams in the group. So advancing to the quarterfinals shouldn’t be much of an issue.

So in a sense, even though the tournament begins on February 14, the ‘real tournament’ only begins on March 18. That also means that India have another month to find their best XI and make it work. How India focuses on the time between now and the knock-outs will be crucial to it’s title defense.

But it will get difficult after that. India will want to the group stage as one of the top two teams. That will allow them to avoid Australia and New Zealand (who are expected to top Group A) in the quarters.

One-day cricket matches can often switch on one superlative performance (either with bat or ball) which is why everyone has a chance but the fact that India has to really rely on that chance and not on the available talent is a telling sign of what awaits Indian fans.

Prediction: India will be knocked out in the quarter-finals.
Squad: MS Dhoni (capt), Virat Kohli (vice-capt), Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Stuart Binny, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Ambati Rayudu, Akshar Patel, R Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Mohit Sharma.