India’s defence of cricket’s premier crown has been so unbelievably solid that it’s sent 17% of the global population into a state of ecstasy. Written off at the start of the tournament, as nothing more than dark horses due to the conditions, the Men in Blue have defied all expectations with convincing victories over Pakistan and South Africa in their opening two games and made a strong statement to all and sundry.
Here are seven factors which make India the most impressive and best-placed team in the World Cup so far:
#1 Solid backbone
Four of the top order batsmen – namely Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and Ajinkya Rahane – have scored big, decisive runs in the first two games, which should hold India in good stead come the latter stages of the tournament. Each of those innings were timed to perfection, fresh in mind being Rahane’s gem which took the game by the scruff of the neck and sent the Proteas into disarray.
More than the runs, it’s the simplicity with which the batsmen have accumulated the runs that has stood out. Even after losing a wicket early on both occasions, they didn’t panic or go for airy shots and steadily accelerated. Both Pakistan and South Africa had put pressure on themselves to make early inroads and when that wasn’t happening, there was panic.
A perfect example of this being the case is the South Africa match at the MCG on Sunday. India were only 56/1 after 14 overs, yet South Africa, despite picking an extra pacer, were bowling spin from both ends. The form of the big four batsmen is a big tick on the checklist and fans now know that the probability of the much feared early collapse is very low. Fans also know that it’s a matter of time before Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni strike form, especially with four relatively easy group games coming up.
#2 Bowling and fielding exceeding expectations
While the Indian batting has stepped up to the plate in magnificent fashion, the more remarkable aspect of the team’s performance has been its bowling and fielding. After all, even mighty hosts Australia would find it difficult to dismiss Pakistan and South Africa back-to-back for 224 and 177, respectively, on pitches where the par score is close to 280. Mohammed Shami and Mohit Sharma now feature in the top ten best averages, economy rates and most wickets.
In both games, the opposition needed to take risks to even maintain a run rate of 5 an over while the asking run rate was inching towards 7 an over. There were very few bad balls bowled during the innings, reflecting a sense of calmness among the Indian bowlers in comparison to the South Africans. Also, while India managed to grab every opportunity that came their way on the field, South Africa’s performance was riddled with uncharacteristic drops and “misfields”.
#3 Common sense cricket
Historically, the Indian team has been known for committing harakiri – most recently, they lost the Adelaide Test after seemingly cruising to victory at one stage. But come ICC events, they suddenly seem to transform themselves and play at their sensible best.
The World Cup and Champions Trophy holders have batted with minimal risk shots. South Africa had to literally earn their wickets with smart run outs and great catching. In both games, India were 150-160 odd for only two wickets down by the 30th over. Even though there was the threat of rain at the MCG around the 35th over, India didn’t need to worry as they had played so well that they would have extracted maximum from the D/L method, had the need arose.
#4 India proving pre-tournament predictions wrong
In the lead-up to the World Cup, all cricket experts and commentators picked only three teams as World Cup favourites: Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. However, they have now been compelled to rethink. The latter has got a big reality check, and while Tim Southee and Brendon McCullum’s exploits have grabbed headlines, not too long ago, the Kiwis were struggling at 137 for 7 en route to a win against minnows Scotland. This, that too, was at their backyard.
The Aussies, too, were reduced to 70/3 and then 228/5 against an ordinary English team during their opening game of the World Cup. India, meanwhile, have arguably been the only team to have shown no weaknesses so far. They comprehensively overcame Pakistan & South Africa and are firmly perched atop the table. If India can continue this form and finish on top of Pool B, they will most likely be facing England during the quarter-final stage, a prospect Indians will relish considering their superiority over the English in recent years.
#5 Pitches at ICC events favouring India
That India, one of the top ODI outfits, raise their game by a couple of notches when it comes to events of such stature is no more a surprise. That the ICC also ensure good batting wickets for these tournaments is a pleasing aspect which aids India’s strengths. It assures value for time and money for the paying public. In my opinion, the fact that there are lesser 180-run tracks – where one bad hour can send a good team out of the event – ensures fairness to all teams who have prepared and dreamt for years for this quadrennial event.
India, with their power-packed batting and all-round bowling, are amongst the very few teams that are well placed to optimally exploit pitches where the par score is in the region of 280-300. They will have their share of challenges in cold and windy conditions in New Zealand, or while chasing under lights, but with their knockout games all likely to be in Australia, they shouldn’t face too much of an issue.
#6 India unstoppable once they get going
Whenever India get some confidence under their belt in ICC events, they become extremely tough to beat. In the 2003 World Cup, barring two losses to the then indomitable Australia, India had an eight-match unbeaten run winning all key games with ease. In the 2011 edition, India tied a game against England and lost a last over thriller to South Africa. That apart, they steamrolled all opponents on their way to the title.
In the last edition of the Champions Trophy, India were a class apart from the other teams and the only time they got challenged was by hosts England in a rain curtailed game. Yet, they won the game despite England being 110/4 chasing 129. Eight members of that 2013 winning team started both games of this World Cup. The signs are all there, I suppose, of a tough, relentless, never say die, street smart outfit.
#7 Incredible fan support
India, being amongst the most populous nations in the world, have one big advantage, which is that Indian fans have so much passion for the game of cricket that they follow the Indian team across the globe and make the team feel at home irrespective of where they play. I recall when India’s sub-standard football team featured in the Asian Cup in 2011, and the Qatari stadiums were filled with Indians cheering for the underdogs.
Adelaide and Melbourne were on a different planet altogether! An estimated 40,000 of the 55,000 sell-out Adelaide crowd and 65,000 of the 86,000 at the MCG were Indians. That sort of roaring sea of blue, across all stands, multiplies when the going gets tough. When Rohit was dismissed this Sunday, with no runs being scored off the next eleven balls, the MCG had pin-drop silence. Then Dhawan punched a single and the crowd were up on their feet. At 10/1 after 5 overs, the decibel levels made it seem as if the score was 40/0. The opposition teams, irrespective of how skilled they might be, are bound to feel intimidated when confronted with such atmosphere.