By Murali Venkatesan
So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak - Sun Tzu, Art of War
The media reports on India’s entry into the quarter-finals of the World Cup is filled with doom and gloom scenarios. One might as well conclude, based on these reports, that India barely qualified for the quarters and that it is simply a matter of time before they are dispatched from the tournament empty handed.
However, Team India’s performances in the last 8 games (including the practice games against Australia and New Zealand) are indicative of a less morbid tale. For the record, India has won 6 of these, lost 1, tied 1, and landed up second on the points table behind South Africa.
Yes, the wins were not very convincing. India’s much-vaunted batting line-up showed some chinks in its armor, most notably during the batting Powerplays. As expected, India’s lack of agility on the field added 15-20 runs to the opponent’s scorecard. The games mercilessly spotlighted the threadbare bowling resources in India’s cupboard, especially in the seam-bowling department.
However, the tie against England and the loss against South Africa were matches that both went to the wire. While it is true that India lost its grip on these matches after being in dominant positions, it is equally true that the team fought hard and both matches could have gone either way till the last ball was bowled.
There are several positives from these matches for Team India:
Yuvraj Singh : Amongst the 15 selected for the World Cup, I felt that Yuvraj Singh made it to the squad on reputation rather than on recent performances. He has struggled with injuries, poor fitness, and bad form with the bat for an extended period of time in the recent past. Given how critical the role of the No 4/No 5 batsman is in the team, I was worried that he would be a weak link. While he has bowled very well throughout the tournament, he has been fairly scratchy with the bat – he had two lives early in his innings against the West Indies. However, he has showed grit and the string of good performances under his belt is a major confidence booster. Given that he relishes the big occasions, Yuvraj could not be better primed for the knock-out phase of the tournament.
Team composition: India have made a hash of selecting the playing XI in most of the matches. Just imagine the scoreline versus South Africa, if instead of opting for three seamers, India had chosen to go in with Ashwin and Harbhajan as part of a two seamers/two spinners attack. With Piyush Chawla essentially out of contention for the second spinner spot and Suresh Raina a shoo-in at No 7 as compared to the hit-or-miss Yusuf Pathan , the team pretty much selects itself for the knock-out phase.
Bowling strategy: It was heart warming to see Mahendra Singh Dhoni toss the ball to Ravichandran Ashwin to open the attack in the match against the West Indies. In addition to being more effective when bowling in Powerplay 1 and 2, the use of spinners in this passage of play saves precious overs from Zaheer Khan’s quota.
Zaheer Khan: He is not only amongst the top wicket takers in the tournament so far, his bowling has turned the tide in almost every match India has played in this World Cup. While he has bowled with guile and cunning in his latter spells, he has struggled while bowling with the new ball. Allowing him to bowl a longer spell with a scuffed up ball in the middle overs and having him take charge of the death overs will only make him more effective for India.
Batting strategy: With the exception of Yusuf, every batsman has come good in the tournament so far. It is also clear that tampering with the batting order is a no-no as it has lead to multiple batsmen playing in unfamiliar match situations. The collapses that have coincided with the mindless dismissals during the batting Powerplays have underlined, as nothing else will, the need to stick to cricketing basics instead of trying to play the oft quoted “glamour shots”. Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer, as senior pros, need to curtail their wont to throw around their bats and instead try to rotate the strike to allow the established batsman to take on the bowling. If the team takes heed of these lessons from the league phase, batting will move to the next level.
I am predicting a fairly tame win for India in the quarter-finals against Australia. While they are a formidable opponent, both their batting and bowling has been over-dependent on a couple of individuals. The Motera pitch should take the sting out of their bowling with the exception of Brett Lee, who is breathing fire. This will be a fun encounter. I would go out on a limb and choose a three-spinner attack and pick Chawla ahead of Munaf Patel. This is not based on the fact that Piyush picked up a 4-for in the practice match.
The joker in the pack, as India moves past the quarter-final match-up, is the fact that we have to play on a seam-friendly pitch in Mohali. With the kind of form exhibited by the seamers, India will have a tough time picking three seamers for this encounter. Once again, I will go out on a limb and pick Shantakumaran Sreesanth because of his ability to bowl wicket-taking out-swingers in addition to Zaheer and Ashish/Munaf.
Additionally, the dew situation makes the toss very important in this encounter. And if it is Pakistan we face, this should a pressure cooker of a match.
And then on to the final at Wankhede. If wishes were horses…
Life is good!
(Murali is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area. When he gets time off from his cricketing duties, whether it be playing or watching cricket, he attends to his duties as a husband, father, and engineering new solar technology solutions)