Oh, for a Roger Binny or a Madan Lal. Or an Anil Kumble. Without someone emulating their feats next February and March, Indian dreams of World Cup glory are likely to get a cold-water reality check long before the final on April 2. If history has taught us anything, it's that the team with the best bowlers wins the competition. It may have evolved from a two-week sprint in 1975 to a six-week marathon these days, but the formula for success has changed little. Teams that bowl the opposition out win trophies. Those that bowl waist-high full tosses and concede 84 runs in the final five overs, as India did during the victory in Vishakapatnam, usually end up watching the final stages on television.
Back in '75, not one West Indian batsman made more than 200 runs. But with Bernard Julien and Keith Boyce taking 10 wickets and Andy Roberts eight, the men from the Caribbean weren't handicapped by the inconsistency of the batsmen. It was a slightly different story four years later, with Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards topping the run charts, but once again the quick bowlers brooked no opposition. Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner all took eight wickets, while Roberts had seven. Not one of them conceded more than 3.77 an over and the 'worst' average (21.5) was Garner's, despite the trophy-winning 5 for 38 at Lord's.
Though they lost the final in 1983, the trend continued, with Indian success primarily the handiwork of their unheralded medium-pacers. Kapil Dev was fifth on the run charts with 303, but no other Indian featured in the top 10. It was a different story with the ball, as Binny took 18 wickets and Madan Lal just one less. Kapil finished on 12 (at a measly economy rate of 2.91), the same as Marshall and Holding, the last man out in that memorable final.
India's failure to defend the title four years later can be attributed to the fact that only Maninder Singh (14 wickets) made a significant impact with the ball. Once Graham Gooch started to sweep at will in the semi-final, India had no one else to turn to. Australia's success owed much to David Boon and Geoff Marsh [second and third on the run chart, behind Gooch], but the game-breaker in the semi-final against a formidable Pakistani side was Craig McDermott, the highest wicket-taker with 18. Steve Waugh's composure at the death also contributed 11 wickets.
When Imran Khan finally got what he wanted in Australia four years later, he was indebted to Javed Miandad, Rameez Raja and Aamer Sohail, each of whom finished with more than 300 runs. But the real catalysts for the triumph could be seen right at the top of the bowling tree. Wasim Akram's beguiling left-arm pace accounted for 18 wickets, while Mushtaq Ahmed's leg spin took 16. There was also the parsimonious Aaqib Javed, who bottled up one end and took 11 wickets.
When Pakistan were thrashed in the final eight years later, they again had some of the competition's finest bowlers. Saqlain Mushtaq took 17 wickets, Shoaib Akhtar 16 and Wasim 15. Unfortunately, they were up against even more irresistible forces. Shane Warne had 20 and Glenn McGrath 18, while Damien Fleming's sterling support fetched him 14.
When Australia swept all before them on their way to retaining their title in South Africa, both Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist made more than 400 runs, but were still well behind India's opening combination of Sachin Tendulkar (673) and Sourav Ganguly (465). The cutting edge came from the bowlers, with Brett Lee taking 22 wickets and McGrath 21. The under-rated Andy Bichel took 16. India beat every other team that they faced, with Zaheer Khan taking 18 wickets, Javagal Srinath 16 and Ashish Nehra 15. They had one bad day, in the final, and that was that.
The Australian dominance was even more overpowering in 2007, with Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting scoring nearly 1200 runs between them. The performances of Shaun Tait (23 wickets) and Brad Hogg (21) meant that the injured Brett Lee was hardly missed, but once again it was the incomparable McGrath that led the pack, with 26 wickets at 13.73.
So, with a bowling line-up that leaks runs so badly in the climactic stages of an innings, does India have any hope? Yes, assuming they can do what Sri Lanka did in 1996. Back then, Arjuna Ranatunga's side didn't have one bowler among the top 15 wicket-takers. Muttiah Muralitharan was their top man, but seven wickets in six games was nothing to write home about in a competition where Kumble took 15 and Warne 12.
What Sri Lanka did have was a dynamic batting order, superbly anchored by Asanka Gurusinha (307 runs at 51.16). Aravinda de Silva produced batting masterclasses in the semi and final on his way to finishing third on the run chart, while Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya also scored at well over a run a ball. No matter what the opposition scored, Sri Lanka backed themselves to get it, with batsmanship that was both classical and innovative.
As Wednesday's game showed, there's little wrong with India's batting reserves. But with just three months to go for the World Cup, it's hard to escape the feeling that all the golden eggs are in the batting basket. A cursory look at bowling figures from the past year would fill a fan with dread, not confidence, especially since the matches have been played in the conditions the team will face during the World Cup.
Nehra is India's top wicket-taker since last October, with 36 wickets from 26 games, but an economy rate of 6.06 reveals how he too has struggled with bowling at the death. Zaheer Khan (16 wickets at 38.56 from 13 games) and Ishant Sharma (14 at 29.14 from 10 games) have played intermittantly, but economy rates of 5.63 and 5.98 are hardly what World Cup wins are made of.
Praveen Kumar has taken 23 wickets in 20 games while giving away 5.4 an over, but once the ball stops swinging, he's likely to be treated to the Cameron White method. The alternatives? There really aren't any. Vinay Kumar lacks pace, Irfan Pathan and RP Singh struggle to get wickets at domestic level and Sreesanth has an economy rate of 7.28 from his eight appearances this year.
The spin situation isn't as dire. Harbhajan Singh has 23 wickets from 17 games (economy rate of 4.7) while the much maligned Ravindra Jadeja has been almost as economical (4.78) while taking 29 wickets from 29 innings. R Ashwin will get a few opportunities to show that he can reproduce his Twenty20 form in the 50-over arena, but India are much more likely to pack the side with seven batsmen and squeeze a few overs out of Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh.
Could such an ill-balanced team carry off the big prize? As Sri Lanka showed in '96, it's not impossible. But unless Zaheer, Ishant and the rest improve dramatically over the coming months, the pressure on the batsmen will be huge. One bad game, like South Africa had against West Indies in '96, and the cherished dream will become a grisly nightmare.