Is there such a thing as a template for good results in a World Cup? West Indies had exceptionally strong batting and vicious pace. In 1983, India batted deep and had many swing and seam bowlers. Australia in 1987 didn't lose a single tight match with their deceptive slow bowlers. Pakistan peaked late in 1992, but did it with steady build-ups and explosive finishes. Between 1999 and 2007, Australia were — well — Australia.
Since Sri Lanka won the last Cup in the sub-continent, it is important to analyse how they did it. They had explosive openers, a middle order that didn't let the momentum slip and an army of slow bowlers. Compare that with India in 2011. After the two warm-up games, it seems MS Dhoni has finally found the template for World Cup success — dominating the middle overs.
In ODIs, all teams look to make the most of the first and last 10 overs. But this World Cup will be won by the team that controls the middle overs and Powerplays the best. A month back in South Africa, these were India's pain-points. But on spin-friendly wickets in Bangalore and Chennai, they seem to have hit upon their magic formula — confident starts, aggressive build-ups, and a strong spin attack to bamboozle their opponents.
Dominating the middle overs --- batting
In Chennai against New Zealand, Gambhir and the middle order lifted India from a slow start much like Gurusinha, Aravinda and Ranatunga did many times in 1996. From a rate of 4.5 when Sehwag fell, Gambhir and Kohli pushed the rate to 5, before Dhoni and Raina blew it threw the roof.
Power-hitting, wise strike rotation and a low percentage of dot balls did the trick. Gambhir, master of the short single, had 33 dots, 39 singles and three twos in his 89.
Dhoni in his brilliantly paced hundred had just 15 dots and 28 singles. He and Raina placed the Powerplay perfectly, not leaving it for the end. This is the exact opposite of what India were doing in South Africa: not rotating strike, losing middle order wickets cheaply and timing their Powerplays badly.
If India can replicate their Chennai methods again, they have Dhoni, Pathan, Raina and Yuvraj waiting down the order to provide the RDX for the slog overs. Yuvraj isn't in top form yet, but with the spinners and Zaheer batting deep, India finally seem to have a sturdy line-up.
Decoding the Powerplays
Let's throw a look back at what winning teams have done with the batting Powerplay recently. In the series against England, Australia lost just one game out of seven. In Adelaide, they had Cameron White and David Hussey going strong while chasing 300. They didn't take the Powerplay. Wickets fell. They lost by 21 runs.
This wasn't an aberration for Australia. They'd always taken the Powerplay late in this series — five times in or after the 42nd over, at other times in the 37th and 38th.
South Africa beat India 3-2 recently. In Durban, Duminy and de Villiers took the Powerplay in the 27th. The result: 45 runs, no wickets, and the run rate shot from 5.5 to 6 in the middle of the innings. India lost by 135 runs.
When India beat New Zealand 5-0 recently, they took the Powerplay just twice in five games — in the 40th over in the first ODI, and in the 38th in the fourth where Pathan blasted the bejesus out of New Zealand.
This gives us the indication that it is best to claim the Powerplay in the middle overs when you have set batsmen. Anything else is an opportunity lost, as Australia discovered in Adelaide.
As Harbhajan said about timing the batting Powerplay in this excellent interview to Cricinfo:
"The best way to take it is to keep wickets in hand. If after 25 overs the team is 150 for 2, and say, one batsman is on 60 and the other on 50, I will take the batting Powerplay straightaway. Those two batsmen are settled and have the momentum with them, so if they keep going 350 is possible, because in the last 10 overs batsmen will go for the slog in any case."
Dominating the middle overs --- bowling
The traditional approach to bowling the middle overs in the sub-continent has been to employ slow bowlers — often part-timers — defend the boundaries and save your best bowlers for the slog.
India can run away with the Cup by turning this method upside down.
Put the spinners on attack, employ a slip and leg-slip, put more fielders in the ring and tell the batsmen to go over the top if they'd like. When he led India against New Zealand, Gambhir used this ploy to perfection. The Black Caps were sitting ducks against Ashwin, Pathan and Yuvraj who took 24 wickets between them in five ODIs.
Dhoni has tended to be more defensive. But in the two warm-up games, he followed the Gambhir route, causing the batsmen to self-destruct under pressure. It's also to India's benefit that they've found a spinner who means to attack all the time. Ashwin could be India's best spinner since Harbhajan.
Sri Lanka in 1996 had mastered slowing down the opposition with their spinners. New Zealand in 1992 had stunned the world by opening with an off-spinner. Tied down with the slow bowling, successive batsmen threw away their wickets. In 2011, India now has the best spin attack along with Sri Lanka. It would be hard to stop these two teams.