This is a Janus-faced column: one face looking forward, the other looking back.
This morning, I read in the Times of India an article by Soumitra Bose, wherein skipper Sourav Ganguly is quoted on the importance of India winning its first Super Six game against Kenya, on March 7.
"We should be qualifying for the semis if we get full points against Kenya," Bose quotes Ganguly as saying.
Hopefully, that is a mis-quotation. Because the alternative is frightening: if the quotation is right; it indicates how the captain and the team are approaching the second stage of this tournament. And the 'all we have to do is win one' approach is loaded with dangers.
(Mandatory pause, here, to allow the shoot-the-messenger-if-you-dislike-the-message types to shoot off angry mails about how much I dislike Ganguly. Done? Fine, thank you, nice to hear from you, now let's move on because the message is about the team's prospects and not about any individual, huh?)
Take a hypothetical reading of how the Super Six games could go; also take, as bedrock fact, that India wins only one of its three Super Six games.
On March 7, Australia beats Sri Lanka at Centurion, and India beats Kenya at Cape Town. Points at that stage: Australia 16, Sri Lanka 7.5, India 12, Kenya 10.
On March 8, New Zealand defeats Zimbabwe at Bloemfontein. New Zealand 8; Zimbabwe 3.5
On March 10, India loses to Sri Lanka at Johannesburg. India 12, SL 11.5
On March 11, Australia defeats New Zealand at Port Elizabeth. Australia 20; NZ 8.
On March 12, Kenya defeats Zimbabwe at Bloemfontein (Hey, Kenya has already defeated Sri Lanka in this Cup; the West Indies in an earlier edition). Kenya 14, Zimbabwe 3.5
On March 14, India loses to New Zealand at the Centurion. India 12, NZ 12.
On March 15, Sri Lanka defeats Zimbabwe at East London, and the game between Australia and Kenya is rained out (at Durban, the venue where, the other day, it rained on SA's parade). SL 15.5; Zimbabwe 3.5; Australia 22; Kenya 16.
Or take the more conservative view, that Australia will defeat Kenya in the Durban game: Australia 24, Kenya 14.
In either instance, Australia, Sri Lanka and Kenya go through. India and New Zealand tie on 12 points apiece -- and the fact that the Kiwis have defeated India in the head to head means it is New Zealand that goes through as fourth placed team.
Also, consider this: Teams like Australia and New Zealand have, in previous editions of the Cup and in other tournaments, not shied from manipulating results to ensure they get to play the opponents they are most comfortable with.
Ever since India's win over England, expert opinion has veered to the view that if there is a team in this competition capable of challenging the Aussies, it is India. This opinion has hardened in the wake of India's win against Pakistan -- in just the last three days, we have heard Mark Nicholas, Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Dean Jones, Ian Chappell, Mike Atherton and Arjuna Ranatunga argue this case.
What if -- again, hold off the brickbats, all this is pure hypothesis -- Australia decides it would rather not have India, a team it cannot predict nor really plan for, entering the next stage? All it takes to ensure that is to lose to New Zealand.
If that happens, the points at the end will read: Aus 20, New Zealand 16, Lanka 15.5, Kenya 14.
India, with 12 points, are out.
Couldn't work out better, could it? While the Kiwis and the Lankans battle it out in one semi-final, Australia plays Kenya in the other!
Kenya in the semis? You'll laugh that out of court -- just as you would, a little over a month ago, have laughed out of court the possibility of Zimbabwe and Kenya both making the last six while the likes of West Indies, South Africa, Pakistan and England go back home.
Was it Sherlock Holmes who said that it never paid to confuse the impossible with the improbable?
It is against this backdrop that you might want to look back, a bit. India beat The Netherlands in its first World Cup match. No big deal -- that was four points for the taking. India then lost to Australia, the defending champions and world champions. (The two are not always synonymous -- for instance, in 1987, India was defending champion but hardly the other).
Again, no big deal, we can shrug -- a win would have been brilliant but a loss was the more expected result. (It needs mentioning, to give matters a context here, that much of the disappointment was not over the result, but the lack of fight -- but that is water under the bridge, let it flow for now).
India then defeated Zimbabwe and Namibia -- and as with Holland, no big deal; eight points there for the pocketing, when you go by the relative strengths of the teams.
Effectively, thus, India's real test -- and in that sense, the real campaign -- began in game five, when it took on England. From that point on, India's task was simply defined: win seven straight games (two in the prelims, three in the Super Sixes, one semifinal, one final), and win the Cup.
Remember the previous World Cup? Australia looked down and out; many experts and former greats from that country (including Dean Jones, then a rediff.com columnist) suggested that the team should be immediately recalled, rather than play on and heap more embarrassment on the country -- a reaction eerily similar to what was being said after the India-Australia game here.
That was when Steve Waugh made his famous little speech to his team: 'Nothing is lost, guys -- we only need to win seven straight games!'
That is pretty much the position India is in -- two down, five to go. Any relaxation of that mindset, any tendency to do 'just enough', any attempt to get cute with calculators and to go hey, even if we win two and team X wins three and Y wins four but A loses two... can prove fatal.
Postscript: The competition has barely entered stage two, and in various countries the knives are already out.
In Pakistan, a committee has already been appointed to probe the team's defeats; in Bangladesh, the coach has been sacked; in South Africa, there are rumblings led by a former player and current selector against the captain and the coach; in England the captain elected to jump before he was pushed; and we are waiting to hear from the West Indies.
It is highly likely that before the year is out, at least three more losing captains will lose their armbands.
But none of the selectors and administrators in these countries are likely to lose their jobs why?
Who picked the captains and the teams? The selectors.
Who picked the coaches? The administrators.
Today, if these selectors axe the captains and the administrators axe the coaches, what in effect are they saying? That their judgment of who should lead, and who should coach, was wrong.
So how come they get to axe the players and coaches and captains, while remaining in their positions to make more such errors of judgment?