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Back Into Contention: Men In Blue


Shikhar_Dhawan_India_cricketBy Chetan Narula from Melbourne:

Shocker! That’s an optimal word to describe India’s 130-run victory over South Africa in Melbourne this past Sunday. Reeling under the cloud of another Test series loss in Australia, tired, over-worked, hoping to regain their touch, they went into the dress-rehearsal tri-series. And then, this same team got stuffed by a mediocre England, twice. From that depth to this optimistic high, it has been a roaring comeback for the defending champions.

That word ‘optimism’ is quite relevant here. Off the field, for a billion fans, it is the foundation for every game in a tournament such as this. It is propelled by an unbeaten record when facing Pakistan, a winning turnaround when facing the likes of South Africa. “Our team can’t lose, won’t lose.” You can tell yourself a million times.

On the field, the reality is a bit different. Coming into this 2015 ODI World Cup, there was want of a solitary win, a first one on this long tour. There was confusion about the proper batting order. There were injuries among the top bowlers. The Indian captain looked downbeat, jaded even. To predict victory against perennial favourites then takes a fan’s optimism, indeed.

Amidst the gloom however, if there was one constant for the Indian dressing room, it was confidence. A belief in their abilities, that they needed just one turning point and their tour-graph would take a sharp upwards turn. In that light, the Adelaide win is a keen marker. MS Dhoni reflected after victory against Pakistan that 6-0 won’t mean much in the longer term. He is right of course. Seen as a solitary, one-off, that win means more than the world to him and his team, and perhaps he didn’t reflect on that part as much.

It gave the Men in Blue buoyancy going into this big clash against the Proteas, the real test of their preparations, considering that they will need to beat teams as strong if they are to successfully defend their 2011 crown. They didn’t disappoint. Shikhar Dhawan epitomizes this turn-around.

There is ever a question mark on his ability to play the short ball, or the moving ball, in tough conditions. His form coming into this tournament was nothing to write about. All he had was the backing of his captain and coach – and team director – and he made it work. His story runs parallel to the Indian team as far as ICC tournaments are concerned. Remember the 2013 Champions Trophy, that form in England and the lull after that, both for the team and this batsman?  

Dhawan’s sedate start with Virat Kohli dropping anchor on an MCG pitch with comfortable bounce was no surprise. Still, an x-factor was needed, much like the Pakistan game. It is where Ajinkya Rahane made the most impact. The Mumbai batsman has been the star of overseas tours since December 2013, and an Indian playing eleven without him is quite unimaginable now.

Even so, he has also struggled to pin down a spot in this ODI batting order. In particular the team management has wanted him to bat at number four, and despite his sincere efforts in getting used to this pivotal spot he was quite unsuccessful over the past year. It was the main reason why the Kohli-at-number-four experiment began. But the manner in which Rahane batted at the MCG this past week has ended the discussion for some time to come.  

His attacking demeanour destroyed the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and company, getting India past 300-mark for a second consecutive time. Some consistent bowling, top-order failure, two run-outs induced by sharp fielding and intense pressure from the raucous 87,000-plus crowd meant South Africa were shot out for less than 200. They should be worried.

Let’s get the choke-word out of the way. They were never in a position to win the game and hence that doesn’t apply, for once. They were in contention to win, however, before the toss that is, much as they were against Zimbabwe in their opening game. Their top-order has failed twice in a row, and their feared-bowling proven ineffective. They won that first match because Zimbabwe couldn’t do what India did – squeeze the middle order with some tight bowling/fielding and dry up runs. It will be interesting to see how AB de Villiers can rally his team back from this point, particularly as they face a rejuvenated West Indies side next.

Meanwhile, this win has put India back in contention for a semi-final spot, atleast opened up an easy path towards the last four. This Melbourne clash was always going to be the deciding game in terms of where India finished in Pool B. Victory has meant that they can indeed top the group and face the fourth-placed side from Pool A, in all probability at the MCG again on March 19 (unless other permutations come in to play at a later stage). From that point onwards, it will again be about winning three games, or losing one for that matter.

All of it depends on the mindset India will reach their quarter-final in. If the win against Pakistan made them buoyant, this one might make them complacent. The high of two major, back-to-back wins can have that impact, particularly when you have an easy fixture-list ahead.

Striving for consistency will be the watch-word for India going ahead, for the Windies are looking purposeful and dangerous again. Not to mention, the likes of Ireland, Zimbabwe and the UAE aren’t taking any prisoners at the moment.

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Wandering cricket writer. Twitter handle: @chetannarula...

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