It's rather bizarre when the captain of the national team walks into a press conference after a game and blames the conditions on the back of one of the most clueless bowling and fielding displays in recent memory.
In a way, that statement sums up the situation: India's problems lie with the bowling and fielding but there is little or nothing that the captain can do about it (he in fact admitted in that same presser that there was nothing he could do about the fielding), so the only thing left really is to blame the conditions.
The batting, mercifully, seems to be in top form with two near-perfect performances in Mirpur and Bangalore, but against that, a bowling unit that could not defend 338 runs under lights against an England team coming off a 6-1 defeat and with a dismal track record in Indian conditions does not augur well for India's prospects in this Cup.
Restrict or dismiss?
One of the most interesting things about this Indian bowling attack is that it is not designed to dismiss the opposition, but merely to restrict the runs they score. In other words, this attack's job description is damage control, whether we bowl first or last. The problem therefore is two fold: As any novice knows, the only way to really check run-scoring is by wickets and by not being able to do that, the bowling unit ensures that the pressure on it, and on the team's batting, is relentless. Secondly, to really perform even a defensive role to optimum, the bowlers need support in the field -- and India is by far the worst fielding unit in this competition. Keep in mind that this is not the IPL with very short boundaries; these games are being played on larger grounds, and that means that the slow Indian fielders have more ground to cover, and end up conceding easy twos where other teams keep things down to a single or none. And - the real bad news - Dhoni has admitted in as many words that India has slow movers in the field, and hence the fielding is not likely to improve by much.
So that is the situation - a bowling unit with a defensive mindset, and a fielding unit that is not geared to back up that game plan.
Clueless bowling upfront
The bowling performance against England was a mix of heightened complacency, glaring incompetence and tactical naivete. The team seemed to think that by virtue of having put 338 runs on the board, the game was already won and all anyone had to do was roll their arms over, for England to roll over and play dead. The first few overs of the run-chase perhaps accentuates this point: the bowlers ran in with no field; the field placing was defensive in nature; and neither bowlers nor fielders showed any sign of intent, thus allowing the England openers to dominate from ball one. All of this was manifest in the amount of boundaries conceded on either side of the wicket, through a succession of short and wide half-trackers and gimme balls on the pads. Between them, Munaf and Zaheer bowled only 15 balls on full length in the entire game (and two of those deliveries got the wickets of Strauss and Pietersen).
Consider the effect, from a game plan point of view: If India's plan is to defend a high score and allow pressure to do its work, such bowling at the outset produced the reverse effect - by leaking free runs, it ensured that England was always ahead of India on the chase, and ended up reversing the pressure.
To make things worse, the captain and his bowlers appeared to be talking different languages. In the past, Dhoni has successfully used the defensive ploy, packing one side of the field and getting his bowlers to bowl with discipline on that side. Here, for instance, when he set a leg side field, the bowler responded with one short and wide of off stump; when he brought fine leg in to block the single, the bowler drifted the ball onto the pad, allowing the batsman to get the four through that region...
India now is confronted with the need for a major course correction. Its next game is against the Dutch, and India needs to put on the park a bowling side capable of taking ten wickets. The question is, who? Giving Sreesanth a go would be a good idea. Taking Harbhajan aside and asking him to forget his self-imposed role as container, and concentrate on wicket-taking, would be another. Ravichandra Ashwin, the naturally attacking off spinner, could well be given a go. One thing is for sure - if you only have four bowlers, and barring Zaheer the others are essentially defensive in nature, then when you go up against the bigger teams, it won't matter how many runs your batsmen get; the opposition will hunt the targets down with ease.
Spinners - predictable length, poor field placement
There has been much talk in the press about how the Indian bowling is heavily spin-based and why the so-called variety in the spin department gives India a good chance to go all the way. Piyush Chawla was preferred to Ravichandran Ashwin, probably because of past experience on a "warm-up" track against Australia and sadly, his performance didn’t come through. For starters, the basics were all over the place, his preferred length being short long-hops as opposed to the classic leg-spinner who earns his cents by tossing the ball up, fuller length at best. His start was predictably nervous, and as the game wore on, control became virtually non-existent. Secondly, whenever the lad decided to toss it up, he did so at a "sweeper’s length" and most of the English batsmen swept him without the need for thought. The other culprit there was in keeping with the theme of the show - field placements for well...bad bowling. As a leg-spinner, you would almost bargain for being hit against the turn or being driven, and a half-attacking field is by far the most important incentive you give a leggie, but in this case, you had the Indian skipper push people deeper as the game progressed, and somewhere that did affect Chawla. His length got shorter and shorter, even to some of the lower-order England batsmen.
Ditto for Harbhajan Singh, who by consensus is one of India’s "match-winning" bowlers. It was rather unusual to see Dhoni have a long on in place as Ian Bell walked out on the back of two quick wickets; what that did was tell the batsman that there was an easy, pressure-releasing single to be had at will. What made it worse was that such a mindset was deployed against a team that is considered weak against spin.
There is a quirk in the Dhoni style of captaincy that few talk about. When he has relatively smaller totals to defend (as for instance in the warm up against Australia) he attacks and looks for wickets. But whenever his batsmen gives him runs to work with, he reflexively tends to defend. There is a problem here: if you don't trust your bowlers to attack and get you wickets, the bowlers will over time adopt a defensive posture almost as a matter of course. Harbhajan is a case in point. And the question is, if you don't attack when you have three hundred and more on the board, then when?
Disappointingly, and similar to Kumar Sangakkara's Sri Lanka the previous day against Pakistan, India's spin attack almost runs out of ideas when there are two set batsmen on the wicket. They start bowling shorter lengths, the flight is almost non-existent, the field is often an invitation for the batsmen to keep doing what they prefer, and with a fielding unit that's not the quickest around, not enough pressure is created. The middle-overs are where the Indian fielders put up a body language that reflects utmost disinterest in proceedings, when a tight performance is what will really help bowlers at a time when the opposition is looking to consolidate.
Fear of defeat
Based on the evidence of the last two games, the mindset of the Indian bowlers and fielding unit seems to be a fear of defeat, probably because of the hype and heightened levels of expectation that India will win the Cup. I wouldn't be surprised if that is the case, prompting Dhoni to seek refuge in safe, defensive and conservative tactics.
In many ways, this campaign is a unique one for India, in the sense that they're not just the on-paper favourites (as they usually are in every World Cup, thanks to the hype machine) but one that has the conditions, the home support, and at least as far as the batting is concerned, the players to go all the way.
For that to happen, though, two things are mandatory: The team mindset needs to shift into one of relentless aggression, and the bowling unit as one has to put its hand up and shift its focus to striking hard and often, irrespective of the totals the batsmen put up.
The good bit is, the weaknesses are not out in the open - and India has two games against the associate nations to get its ducks back in a row.
These are the views of the author and not the ICC.