Let's put it bluntly - India's World Cup campaign is in a bit of a disarray and like I wrote in my previous column, the wafer-thin potential of this bowling attack, it's design is just not looking good enough to take the team through the big moments. Three games since the tie against England, India look like a side who have refused to learn from their apparent mistakes and over the five matches they've played, which by the way includes a couple of associate nations, they've looked as unconvincing as any pre-tournament favourites have ever looked. Their bowling looked like an obvious weakness, but injudicious batting or as the captain put, "playing for the crowd" (whatever it means) meant, potential didn't translate into performance and so on and so forth. For an Indian fan, the comforting news is that the knockouts are just a game away, and importantly the discomforting bit, there is no visible sign of improvement - tactically or otherwise and perhaps critically, India still don't know their potentially World Cup winning first XI.
If anything, as I wrote earlier, the two matches leading up to the massive game at Nagpur were an opportunity to give a few squad members an opportunity to see where they were at, if at all they were in a position to offer something new to the table and alter the status-quo, so that they field their best XI in the last two games against the South Africans and the West Indians. But alas, a rigid thought-process and an obsession prevailed over the pragmatic, non-performers were given another chance to gain "valuable match practice", certain squad members were left out because they were "mentally strong", which by all means was the most bizarre explanation I've ever heard in my cricket watching/writing life to leave out a player. Also, those two matches provided a golden opportunity to try out a different approach, a different design to the look - maybe a six batsmen, five bowler combine, which today has taken over as the most discussed afterthought in Indian cricketing discourse other than of course Ravichandran Ashwin's selection or non-selection.
Somewhere complacency is to blame, as always with all things Indian cricket. The concern primarily is, even after the England tie (where the abject performance was blamed on the belter of the wicket, just to remind you) India showed that they weren't an exactly a ruthless unit, as every Indian fan wants them to be. Against Ireland, the bowling was flat for most of their innings, spinners terribly clueless against a team built up as one of the "weakest against spin" or for that matter, the reckless batting stutter against Holland could have been avoided. And hey, the deal here is about not getting out to extraordinary deliveries in the first place, but somehow the top-order crumbled to their own internally perceived lack of interest in proceedings and got themselves out. At Nagpur, the first Great Indian Batting Collapse, a self-inflicted choke of sorts during the batting powerplay, after what many felt was an unreal start by the top three batsmen.
It wasn't just about the platform they gave the rest of the batting order, but the manner in which they did that - a comprehensive and simulating approach to cricket, often preferring fluent stroke-play over naked belligerence, only to be succeeded by ignis fatuus. It's all good to sit back now and look at how India should have handled their batting powerplay better, but hey, this is the second time they've failed to nail it - if people still remember the game against England, that is. The fact of the matter is, that India fell for the classic dummy as far as the batting powerplay is concerned i.e. try and hit every ball out of the park - something what Ross Taylor and Jacob Oram put to practice against some shoddy bowling by the Pakistanis, but the Saffers aren't exactly the friendliest of attacks to try that against, I am afraid. Ideally, the batsmen should have played out two overs for 6-7 runs an over, given themselves a platform within the powerplay and carried the momentum of run-scoring through to the slog-overs. 29/9 and simply 28 runs of the last ten overs is criminal for a top one-day side, and India must only look to how South Africa went about their business in their powerplay to see where they went wrong. Forget the fact that they had a target in mind, and hence it became easier et al, just observe the gradual changing of gears in the power-play.
Having said that, in my view, the score they set 296 was a defendable total, not exactly what India would have desired, but given the events that unfolded, I don't think they'd have minded defending that total. But then, the bowling attack, which lacks confidence, resolve and the teeth required to not defend totals as it's set up to be, but win matches. Barring Zaheer Khan's 10 overs, which by far present’s India's best hope of picking wickets, there no other prominent resource Dhoni could turn to. Forget Ashish Nehra's karma for a minute, and look at what another so-called senior bowler i.e. Harbhajan Singh is up to. Is he in the XI to pick up wickets or save runs? Or do both? I honestly don't know, maybe he doesn't too. Let's remember first, that he went wicketless against both Ireland and Holland. For two overs on Saturday, he looked a different bowler, flighting the ball, pitching it outside off-stump with an intention of picking wickets, but the problem with Bhajji is his reluctance to keep that going, the moment batsmen knock him around for singles and twos.
That line, though best/ideal for an offie is never sustained beyond that initial two overs, and Harbhajan, I am afraid, abdicates purpose and belief when batsmen try and move around in the crease, which is when he turns to that seemingly passive round-the-wicket, pitch it on middle and leg line (Murali does it too, but the man usually pitches it in line and takes it away/straightens it from there as opposed to simply landing the ball there without giving it a rip) - which is akin to raising the white flag and telling the batsmen there are easy singles on offer if he chose to take it. Problem is, India cannot afford a Harbhajan who these days, is at best, an edition of Raymond Price, with that doosra. He’s not taking a bagful of wickets or sharing the workload (though apologists might argue he picked up three last night), and if he’s simply in the side to contain and bowl defensive lines and lengths, it's highly unlikely he might add anything constructive to this bowling unit.
My concern with Harbhajan is not so much that he’s a bad bowler, but his mindset as a spinner. It's a) showing in the way he bowls these days and b) even the fact that batsmen tend to play him better and c) when that happens, he comes through as a virtually clueless and confused bowler, contrary to his team's expectations. Next up, is the non-existent death bowling, a problem which has lasted two good years now, and a solution not anywhere to be found in the near future, I am afraid. Or let's just say, there's Zaheer and there's no one else, another damning indictment of the lack of bowling depth in this team. Unfortunately, Dhoni doesn't have the likes of Lasith Malinga or Dale Steyn to turn to, but given the resources, discipline could mask a certain lack of ability. And during the course of these five games, three bowlers have virtually ruled themselves out, either by default or performances - Sreesanth, Piyush Chawla and Nehra, so who does Dhoni have as an option to turn to? Ravichandran Ashwin. And somehow, the myth that Ashwin serves up as a surprise option for the knockouts has faded away into no longer being what it was intended to originally - a surprise.
Now to captaincy. Here are some numbers worth munching - India played out 141 dot balls in their innings against South Africa. The latter, only 124 during their run-chase. I don't know if it reveals a lot, but it also tells me that during the middle overs, singles were available on the free, fielders typically being pushed out to prevent boundaries that teams were anyway not thinking about, especially at a time when Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla's concerns were primarily to consolidate and create a platform. I thought Dhoni should have been more proactive and brought the field up, just to change the status-quo and block singles, create pressure and force batsmen into going over the top if they were good enough to do so. Instead, what it ensured was the batsmen kept the scorecard moving and not enough dot balls were bowled - something even the so-called "minnows" tried to do against India.
My view on this is, whatever be the target, Dhoni should attack more, as Arjuna Ranatunga said in 1996, whatever the total was, we defended it like it was 200 runs. Of course, attacking fields count for nothing without a strong yet disciplined bowling attack, backed up by sharp fielding, but it's still worth a try in my humble opinion, especially in the middle overs. Picture this - the Irish captain, William Porterfield "created" a batting powerplay in the 27th over of the English innings when the latter were 207/2. Might have not worked, but it at least makes the batsmen think, and do things differently plus also, if it fails, there's always a chance to push the fielders back to where they were before. Just a thought.
Where do we go from here? Well, it's about time India think about a XI that can win the World Cup and stick to that one team if they're going all the way. If I were Dhoni, and people have a right to disagree with me here, I'd sacrifice the extra batsman to beef up the already listless bowling. Say, drop Virat Kohli (who at 7 is a completely wasted batsman) or Gautam Gambhir for Sreesanth, depending on the conditions. My argument would be India lose a quality fielder in Kohli or a left-hander at the top in Gambhir, but give themselves that much more chances of defending totals.
In effect, the world's best batting line-up might have to pull their socks, even if it sacrifice carefree cricket for momentary tentativeness and also, if required, Dhoni could walk himself up the order at 4, man up in case of a tricky start. Bottomline being Ashwin must play all games from here on. There's no point in throwing him into a knockout situation because he's supposedly "mentally strong" according to his captain, and him having a bad day would make a perfect case for a scapegoat by Indian fan standards. Sadly, there's a fair degree of inflexibility about the combination in this think-tank, that only a 7-4 batting-heavy line-up could do the job. Well, it's not come through, so might as well try the 5 bowlers strategy.
Unfortunately, India's World Cup campaign hangs in the balance. Mathematically, it's two games away from falling apart, or even for that matter, four games away from glory. And unless the current blueprint is rectified or altered to ensure consistent success through the knockouts, good luck!