» News » Complete India ready for final

Complete India ready for final

By Daniel Laidlaw
March 15, 2003 22:05 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

Since their first two games of this tournament, India have played as well as at any time in recent memory. That is the truth of it. Not Tendulkar, not Dravid, not Srinath or any one individual, although at least two of those have figured prominently -- India. As a team.

When one recalls India's most notable one-day success of the recent past, the tri-series win in England (overlooking the shared Champions Trophy), India won despite conceding 325. In any given match at the moment they'd be more likely to be chasing 200.

With the progression of Nehra and the return to the fold of Srinath, India has fielded a forceful, wicket-taking bowling attack in this tournament in which there have been no passengers, propelling them from a good, potentially dangerous side on a given day into one of the top two. Fortunes change quickly, but in the World Cup India have demonstrated a completeness that marks them as at the least a likely finalist.

As they head into a semifinal against Kenya, India are playing with the forward-looking enthusiasm of a team that knows it has found a successful formula and is relishing each game as it comes, embracing the challenges along the way. They have taken opponents head on, either asserting themselves on the contest early or confidently working back into the game when not. After the early lows against Holland and Australia, it must be a tribute to the structure and leadership of the team that India had the wherewithal to remain confident, and form followed.

For what can appear from the outside at times to be a batsman-obsessed cricket culture, it sometimes seems the fundamentally important roles bowlers play in influencing a side's fortunes is an afterthought for India in comparison to the attention afforded the batsmen. In this World Cup, India has discovered just how rewarding a collectively in-form bowling attack is.

Before the start of the tournament, the number of contributors to India's attack was one of the keys to their success. While the batsmen had to display the form their reputations demanded for India to progress, one felt untimely wayward spells might cost India in the bigger games. Instead, just the opposite has happened, as a previously unheralded performer stepped up and others demonstrated their continuing value.

Against England in a pivotal group game, Ashish Nehra rightly earned the 'revelation' tag with a spell to do his idol Wasim Akram proud. Even more encouragingly, though, was that it could just as easily have been Srinath or Zaheer taking those wickets, a scene more or less repeated as the seamers struck early and often against Sri Lanka and New Zealand in the Super Six.

For traditionally batsman-focussed India to demolish teams on good pitches with its seam attack is virtually unheard of, and must lift the entire side and make everyone more comfortable with their positions. There have been no outward signs of pressure.

Nehra and Zaheer are both bowling with rhythm and confidence, running in with intent and -- crucially one suspects -- appearing to expect to perform. For Nehra, this is a huge improvement on what one remembers of his diffident and forgettable performances in England last year. With an armoury of natural angle across the right-hander, the ball that straightens for the lbw and a good yorker, Zaheer is increasingly a strike bowler to command respect, while Srinath's role is inestimable.

Clearly, the experienced and enthusiastic seamer is a significant addition to India's attack, creating a mixture of the old and the relatively new. A troika of seamers confident and eager to perform, with no-one a weak link, is invaluable, as batsmen are either forced to play them out and suffer the pressures of escalating run rate or take chances and risk losing their wickets. Harbhajan Singh meanwhile quietly does his job, a spinner's work that much easier with the middle order opened up for him. No reprieve to be found there.

As the evidence suggests, India's run to the semi-finals also appears the result of hard work over an extended period of time, with a system in place. As Pakistan's (and perhaps South Africa's) campaign showed, it's not enough to just turn up with a new coach and a professed willingness to win. What may superficially seem a sudden change in fortunes takes much more than that, and reflects preparation and a stable team culture.

The successful return of Sachin Tendulkar to his preferred opening slot has been a fillip for fans and spectators, though not the sole reason for India's batting form. Anyone who still maintains dismissing Tendulkar early is the key to knocking over India hasn't been paying full attention. Naturally, taking out a team's best batsman is fundamental to overcoming them. Against Kenya and New Zealand, however, India lost three early wickets and still prevailed when chasing, as they also did when the loss of Tendulkar presented an opportunity to collapse against Pakistan. In the only game India lost, on the other hand, Tendulkar was the top scorer.

What cannot be overlooked is that India continues to draw strength from a composed and dynamic middle order – Dravid, Kaif and Yuvraj have all been involved in eminently calm, sensible partnerships to smoothly overcome setbacks, making the right course look simple with good running between the wickets and generally intelligent cricket. For sides with any aspirations of success this has to be a matter of routine, but for India it hasn't always been the case. India were desperately close to losing to Kenya, for example, but just as the situation seemed poised to swamp them Ganguly initiated a forced counter-attack, and with Yuvraj positively extricated the side from a losing position.

Quality of fielding is, again, a reflection of preparation and skills of those in the team rather than any instantaneous transformation, and accolades for the captain are partly a by-product of success as well. One suspects the background work of instituting a winning culture in which the next game is always the most important is much more difficult than actually managing a confident side on the field.

For India, as with others, the tournament now reaches a different stage, where what has occurred in the past becomes a trusted foundation to draw from in a new environment in which nerve, temperament and ability under pressure is subjected to a greater examination. India get the dream match against Kenya, so if they keep a tight focus their pressure contest may not arrive until the final.

Whatever happens in the semifinals, the World Cup champion will be the team that rises to the occasion, welcomes the extra pressure and produces the better cricket on the day. So far India have done all those things, and should have just about as good a chance as any when their day of reckoning comes around.

Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
Daniel Laidlaw