Beating Australia, India style

Venkat Ananth
Venkat Ananth
cricket blogs for Yahoo Cricket Columns

Over the past few days, there was an appreciable amount of
anxiety as to who India would encounter in the quarterfinals of the World Cup,
with all possible scenarios coming through, three opponents in question -
Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Now, it's formal - Australia at Ahmedabad
on Thursday. Wellofcourse, it was important for the Indian lads to sign-off the
preliminary group stages by seeing off the West Indies at Chennai, but somehow
the rather disturbing takeaway from the game was it typified India's campaign
in the tournament so far - unconvincing but mighty effective. Improvement from
the previous excursions were scarce, with familiar deficiencies popping out
time and again, which still is a sign of concern, given the nature of the
format they await next - a knockout. Is Australia a good deal, some of you
might ask? I say, a great bargain and a fantastic opportunity to assert their
title credentials by knocking the defending champions out. And, going with the
popular thought about playing Australia, I'd say it's a great time to play them
not just from the POV of an ensuing knockout scenario, but for the simple fact
that they haven't had the most domineering of World Cup campaigns so far, and
an aura fast disappearing into cold-storage.


Now, how do we go about that? First and foremost, the
Indians need to desperately believe they can beat Australia - for many previous
editions of the Indian cricket team has matched them for skill, at times
outskilled them, but lacked the requisite belief to pull off that win. To add,
there is no reason to fear Australia, at least this particular squad, for
they're still battling to evolve their identity, and emerge from the shadows of
fear past Australian teams specialized in endowing into the minds of oppositions
they were playing against and killing whatever little belief they claimed to
have. This is a slight mental adjustment India might have to make against this
opposition, but if they do that, the cricketing side of things might just flow
into being near effective.


Getting the selection right


On evidence of Sunday's win over the West Indies, India
might have belatedly found their best XI right, and if Virender Sehwag is fit,
Suresh Raina might have to make way. Barring that, I see no changes. The
bowling combination that took the field against the West Indies is by far
India's best given the circumstances and I'd expect that not to change. Having
said that, India must confront their own weaknesses i.e. bowling and
importantly improve that facet, not that things can change dramatically in the
matter of two days, but efforts should be well on. Ravichandran Ashwin wasn't
quite the mythical hero everyone claimed him to be, but importantly for his own
good, bowled rather well with the new ball - a length often impeccable, and
control - nothing less than enviable, considering the powerplay and all that.
And given Australia's historical track-record against off-spin, a weakness
waiting to be exploited, both he and Harbhajan Singh must play on Thursday.
Zaheer Khan's gradual improvement as the tournament has worn on is a massive
factor for this bowling unit, and given that he's the go-to man whenever the
others around him have looked rather innocuous, it is imperative that he
performs in this important game. If it weren't a knockout, I would have thought
about unleashing Sreesanth, given that mentally, he's one of those bowlers
who's managed to get under the skin of a few Aussies, not just in the past, but
even in the warm-up game, but having said that, I guess it's rather too late in
the day to err on the side of sorry than safe.


Bowling-wise, there are two batsmen I'd like to think India
should be heavily targetting - Shane Watson and Ricky Ponting. Watson has by
far been Australia's best batsman for a while now, a good couple of years and
one they expect to help create that platform for the bigger names to follow.
How do you get Watson out? Try and replicate what Zimbabwe did - maybe open
with a spinner, ideally Ashwin, who despite the exposure in the IPL, the Aussies
wouldn’t have played much of. Even with quicks, the slower ball has brought
about his downfall many a times, not because he doesn't pick it, he does, but
at times, he's early into the shot and importantly, goes hard at it. By getting
Watson, India's bowlers might expose the unsure, run-dry Australian
top/middle-order early, notably Ponting and Michael Clarke, who have
inexplicably struggled for runs through the past year or so. The only note of
caution here though, is that some of these Aussie lads are big-match players,
and given the occasion, they might just raise their levels of performance to
one which India wouldn’t have accounted for. If anything, I'd expose the
middle-order early, try and get Ponting and Clarke out, and dig deeper into the
Aussie line-up, which admittedly, bats reasonably deep.


Bat first, bat well


I guess, this is quite a no-brainer, given that it's a
do-or-die game and what India's preferences have tended to favour in the past.
Batting first on what many say could well be a slow and low wicket makes a lot
of sense, given that, let's face it, India aren't the best handlers of pressure
in knockout games and add to that, in front of a full-house home-crowd in a
World Cup game. Script says - win toss, bat first, score big and try defending
the total. Of course, the Motera is notorious for the dew factor, but India must do well to play the opposition and not the conditions


The good news for India's top-order, barring Gautam Gambhir,
whose run of form has been slightly up and down off-late, every other batsman
is in good scoring form and is central to the script India would want to write
that day. Virat Kohli should bat at 4, with Yuvraj Singh dropping to 5 upon
Sehwag's return. While the hundred Yuvraj scored on Sunday was critical for his
own confidence and the team's good, both he and Kohli showed their value by not
playing enough dot balls in the middle overs, a stat, India have tended to lag
behind in the group stage (especially against England and South Africa). There
was fluency on display with virtually every ball being knocked for at least a
run or two, which with the odd-boundary helped India accelerate in an almost
unnoticed fashion. And that's something India might have to try and replicate
against the Aussies. To add, they cannot afford another collapse in the batting
powerplay, which they've made a habit of (7/33 vs Eng, 9/29 vs SA and 7/50 vs
WI) and relinquish dream starts to below-par/ordinary strokeplay later on in
the innings. Batting 50 overs has been a bit of a premium for this team in this
World Cup, but given that it's a knockout, one more of such collapses against a
strong team like Australia, that's by far it.


Also, if there are two bowlers I'd like to see India
attacking a bit more, they'd have to be Mitchell Johnson and Jason Krejza.
Johnson off-late has tended to mirror Ajit Agarkar as a bowler - heavily
inconsistent, but someone who picks wickets and does so regularly. India should
not let Johnson settle into a rhythm (which many might argue is a rarity these
days) and if possible, go after him early - a tactic which South Africa used
successfully the latter half of their ODI series in 2008, especially Hashim
Amla and Herschelle Gibbs, who invariably took him apart in the first three
overs of his spell, thereby unsettling him and forcing him to bowl to them,
than otherwise. The thing with Krezja is that he's a slightly different spinner
than what India must have encountered in the group stages - barring Graeme
Swann. Not quite in Swann's league just yet, but Krezja is an attacking
spinner, who mainly tosses the ball up and stays just around/outside the
off-stump. Of course, I fancy India to play him rather effectively, but I'd
like to see more intent in terms of use of feet, movement around the crease,
and possibly a few smart strokes to put him off - again a bowler, who could
grow into a threat if allowed to bowl.


Attack, attack, attack


Not quite a chant from the Stretford End at Old Trafford,
but this is as clear as anything I'd like to see India do. In other words,
Australia don't leave you with much options anyway. Sitting back and waiting
for things to happen, quite simply plays into the hands of the Australians and
I think this is one area, where India need to shore up big time on Thursday.
Defensive captaincy, is something I have reconciled with, given the resources
Mahendra Singh Dhoni has on the bench, but it can't be a poor substitute for
lack of urgency and a lack of proactive thought as far as tactics are 
concerned, even if there's a fine line there somewhere. Even if India manage to
put big runs on the board, this is one game where they must field for their
life, bowlers must bowl to their field, and in short not take a step back,
something this very Indian line-up did a three years back in the CB Series in
Australia. The difference between Australia (however weak you think they might
be) and other teams is that they believe they can win a match from any
position, 200/2 or 150/6, or even when batting first, put 240 on the board and
back themselves to defend it. That is where I'd half expect India to match
Australia - the belief, complimented by a touch of aggression not just in field
placings, but in thought. Till now, India have been seeking refuge in
conservative tactics, letting the game drift and then try to pull it back.
Sorry to say, but it might have worked against England or even the West Indies,
but this very mindset could lose India the World Cup in two days time.


In sum, Thursday could well present India's most defining
challenge in this World Cup so far. Like I said earlier, it's a mighty good
opportunity to show that we mean business and we're here to beat the best, and
win the cup. Anything else, and Indian cricket might well be left to rue that
day for years to come.