India enjoyed success in all formats of the game last year, and captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team will head into the 2011 World Cup confident they can emulate Kapil Dev's 1983 Cup winning squad. In 2010, 'The Men in Blue' won 17 of the 27 One-Day Internationals they played; the victories included series triumphs over South Africa, Australia and New Zealand at home.
Even though they lost the recent One-day series in South Africa, Dhoni's team has proven they have the ability to bounce back from impossible situations. India deservedly is one of top contenders to win the 10th edition of the ICC World Cup, and on paper, Dhoni has a fantastic bunch of players to choose from for the playing XI.
But, on closer examination, there are a few chinks in India's World Cup squad that could prove to be stumbling blocks in India's quest to win the trophy for the first time in 28 years. On top of that list is the fact that the Indian World Cup squad hasn't played as a unit over the last year or even in the series against South Africa, either because of injuries to players or the rotational policy. This means while each player may be aware of his individual role, other important elements like team dynamics and understanding their responsibilities in the bigger picture would have to be addressed in the preparation camp ahead of the World Cup. While most of India's World Cup squad has played together more often than not in ODIs over the last year, this is an area that needs attention in the training camp especially as most of the other boards have played teams with the World Cup in mind over the last year.
The batting power play is something India hasn't quite figured out perfectly as yet, in particular its timing and the tactics for those five overs. The tendency of Indian batsmen in the batting powerplay has been to carelessly and needlessly throw their bats at everything and this has generally been taken by India after an established batsman is dismissed. The momentum can easily be lost in the batting power play because of a couple of irresponsible shots, and India will have to ensure that their timing and tactics for this five-over spell gets a lot more clarity than there is at the moment.
India hasn't used the Decision Review System (DRS) since their tour of Sri Lanka in 2008, but Dhoni is confident this won't impact his team in the World Cup where this system is going to be used. The BCCI and India's senior players have had reservations about using the DRS since that tour, but Dhoni recently said, "We are ready for the UDRS. We have done background checks and won't be caught unawares." That could just be the case, but not knowing how best to use the DRS may prove to be costly for India in the World Cup.
Sachin Tendulkar reluctantly agreed to bat at No.4 in the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, and even though he has made it clear on many occasions that he prefers to open the innings in ODIs, given India's brittle middle-order form and should the team require it, the Master Blaster should at least consider the possibility of batting at two-drop in the World Cup. Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Dhoni have all been in patchy form, and though Yusuf Pathan is an intimidating presence at No.7, he can't be expected to salvage India's innings in every other match.
Both Yuvraj and Raina have found run-scoring difficult of late, the most recent evidence of their struggles coming in the ODI series against South Africa where the former scored only 91 runs at an average of 18.20 and the latter fared only a bit better scoring 111 runs at an average of 22.20. Yuvraj has been scratchy in his last 20 ODIs as can be gauged by the fact that he has only scored 440 runs at an average of 27.5 and strike rate of 69.73 as compared to his career figures of 36.61 and 87.65 respectively. Raina has been in much better form with the bat than Yuvraj, but he hasn't been as consistent in the last six-seven ODIs he has played as his technical deficiencies have been ruthlessly exploited. In his last 26 ODI innings, Raina has scored 742 runs at an average of 35.33 and strike rate of 93.92 with a highest score of 106.
India's middle-order woes have been compounded by the fact that Dhoni has also found run-scoring difficult since the start of 2010 – in the 23 ODIs he has played in that time, the Indian skipper has scored only 675 runs at an average of 37.50 and strike rate of 76.18 as compared to his corresponding career figures of 48.80 and SR of 87.80. Dhoni has only scored one century and three half-centuries in these matches and he has appeared to be confused with the approach he should take at the crease even though he is at his best when he attacks the bowling.
Should Tendulkar be more comfortable batting at the top of the order, the consistent and impressive Virat Kohli must be a part of India's playing XI at either Yuvraj or Raina's expense. Kohli though would have to bat at No.4, as Gautam Gambhir will be the one-drop, even though the former has had most of his success at the international level batting at No.3. Gambhir last batted at No.3 in December 2009 when he scored a match-winning 150* against Sri Lanka in Kolkata – he has scored 1161 runs including three centuries and six half-centuries in 31 matches at an average of 43 and strike rate of 82.75 batting at one-drop.
Kohli, who was not only the most prolific Indian batsman in ODIs in 2010 but also finished the year as the second-highest run-scorer in the 50-over format behind South Africa's Hashim Amla, is certainly an in-form player. He scored 995 runs including three centuries and seven half-centuries in 24 innings at an average of 47.38 and strike rate of 85.11 last year, and further enhanced his reputation during India's recently concluded ODI series in South Africa. India may have lost the series 2-3, but Kohli, who batted at No.3 throughout the series continued to be the best Indian batsman on display by far as he scored 193 runs at an average of 48.25 and strike rate of 79.42 with a highest score of 87*. Kohli has always had all the shots in the book; however over the last year, he has learnt how to build an innings based on the match situation – an important trait in a top-order batsman.
Though Kohli deserves to be part of the playing XI even in a full-strength Indian team, the youngster could miss out if the Indian think-tank continues its policy of backing big names instead of in-form players.
Another chink is the fact that four of India's 15-member World Cup squad – Gambhir (hand), Virender Sehwag (shoulder), Tendulkar (hamstring) and Praveen Kumar (elbow) – are recovering from their injuries and their match fitness can be determined only during the warm-up games. While the three batsmen are expected to be fit by the time India plays its first match of the 2011 World Cup against Bangladesh on February 19, there are concerns about Praveen regaining full fitness for the mega-event. If injury forces Praveen out, India will lose a swing bowler; but it would open a window of opportunity for S Sreesanth, who was impressive during the recently concluded Test series in South Africa. And, while Sehwag and Gambhir have been playing the 50-over format, Tendulkar didn't play any ODIs in 2010 after made his record-breaking 200* against South Africa on February 24. He returned to the ODI team for the five-match series against South Africa in January 2011 but had to fly back home after he injured his hamstring in the second ODI at Johannesburg, and it is to be seen if this rustiness in the 50-over format will affect Tendulkar in the World Cup.
Though India has chosen three spin bowlers in the World Cup squad – Harbhajan Singh, R Ashwin and Piyush Chawla – the absence of an attacking lead spinner could hurt the co-hosts assuming Harbhajan will continue to be the preferred slow bowler. Harbhajan took 104 wickets at an average of 34.87 and strike rate of 45.96 with an economy rate of 4.55 in the 95 ODIs he played between 2006 and 2010; but these figures hide the fact that in a few series in these last five years, he has been below par and has just two fivers in this period.
Harbhajan plays more of a containing role now instead of a wicket-taking role, and as the lead spinner, he would be expected to play both those roles. The series in which Harbhajan has underperformed include – India's 2006 tour of West Indies in which he took only three wickets in five ODIs at an average of 64 and strike rate of 98, but he contained the runs as his economy rate of 3.91 shows; ICC Champions Trophy 2006-2007 in which he took two wickets in the three matches India played at an average of 51.50 and SR of 84.0 and economy rate of 3.67; India's tour of South Africa in 2006-07 where his only wicket in three ODIs came at an average of 161 and SR of 168 and he was also expensive with an economy rate of 5.75.
In the home series against Sri Lanka in 2006-07, Harbhajan took three wickets in four ODIs at an average of 44.33 and strike rate of 62 and an economy rate of 4.20; and when Australia came visiting in 2007-08, the 'Turbanator' had a torrid time with the ball as he took only three wickets in six ODIs at an average of 87 and strike rate of 108 and econ rate of 4.83. Most recently, in the five-match ODI series India played in South Africa, Harbhajan again played a containing role as his four wickets came at an average of 51.25 and SR of 70.5 and economy rate of 4.36. While Harbhajan has managed to take more than 100 ODI wickets in the last five years, he isn't as attacking as he used to be with the ball when he first started out and this lack of penetration has been hurting India and Dhoni has been forced to turn to the part-time spinners for wickets.
Ashwin is an option for the attacking spin bowler's role and he has the confidence and variations to play the part. Ashwin, who is a smart and thinking bowler, has only played seven ODIs, but he has already shown he has what it takes to play for India in the shorter formats.
Chawla could turn out to be an inspired selection, but the leg-spinner had last played an ODI in July 2008 when he was named in India's World Cup squad. He made his India comeback in the final ODI of the five-match series in South Africa and had figures of 7-0-32-0. He has taken 28 wickets in 22 ODIs at an average of 33.67 and strike rate of 40.8 with an economy rate of 4.94, and one can only hope he will be up to the task whenever he is called upon in the World Cup.
In conclusion, the point of this column is not to downplay India's chances in the World Cup. India has the squad to go all the way, but the issues discussed here can't be sidelined either.