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Home > Cricket > World Cup 2003 > Columns > Prem Panicker

Unpredictability makes India vulnerable

January 12, 2003

Think back to the World Cups of 1992, 1996, and 1999 -- what's the commonality?

Simply this: On each occasion, pundits, bookmakers and fans alike talked of India as a possible contender for top honours.

In 1996 and 1999, as part of the Rediff team covering the competition, I've had occasion to chat up some of those pundits and fans -- and a common thread has run through those conversations: 'Yeah, India has this great batting line-up... yeah, true, the bowlers are a touch inconsistent... yeah, there is the odd question mark about the captaincy... yeah, teams like X and Y are far stronger and more complete... true, the Indian team has various problems that could prevent it from doing well...


That, in one word -- 'But' -- is the story of Indian cricket, then, and now. Is India the best batting team in the competition? Yes and no. Is it the best bowling team? No. Is it the best fielding team? No. So is it one of the favourites? Yes.

Indian cricket reminds you of nothing more than a crate of soda bottles -- you know, the small-industry version with a marble as stopper? All bottles look alike, and yet when you try to open them, one will fizz so mightily half the soda is spilt before you can take a sip, another is just perfect, a third has all the animation of tap water... and you never know which is which till you actually open the bottle.

Rediff has a neat little template for analyzing World Cup teams. It goes Strengths, Weaknesses, Liabilities and so on -- handy pigeonholes to file information into; and yet all of it, in this instance, is completely useless.

Strengths? The batting -- which, over a 12-month span, has produced the following performances:

272/4 in 48.5 overs; 304 in 50 overs; 326/8 in 49.3; 288/6 in 50 overs; 271/2 in 39.3 overs; 200/1 in 27.1 overs; 290/8 in 48 overs; 283/6 in 50 overs; and 325/5 in 47.4 overs.

Weaknesses? The batting, which during the same period has produced the following:

123 all out in 25 overs; 165 all out in 29.1 overs; 180 all out in 36.5 overs; 108 all out in 32.5 overs; 108 all out in 41.1 overs; 122 all out in 43.4 overs...

Strengths? The bowling, which during the time frame in question has reduced opposing sides to: 186 all out; 191 all out in 36.2 overs; 187 all out; 201 all out; 109/7...

Weaknesses? The bowling, which during the calendar year has conceded:  325; 274; 285/6; 280/3; 300/5; 324/4; 291/5; 315/6...

This same period has seen spectacular individual performances:

Sourav GangulyA score of 275/5 that contained Ganguly's 127/126 and Tendulkar's 101/129 and nothing else; 219/2 in just 29.4 overs with Tendulkar 87/67 and Sehwag 82/62; 333/6 in 50 overs with one batsman (Dinesh -- surprise -- Mongia) making 159 of those.

And it has seen the team come together as in a score of 281/8 with just one batsman scoring 50; a score of 319/6 with no batsman scoring a century; a successful chase of 326/8 after being 146/5, with no batsman scoring a century...

All this in a year that has seen the team defeat England, South Africa, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe and lose to the West Indies and New Zealand.

You want to try and pigeonhole this team's strengths and weaknesses? Best of luck.

One could keep digging up stats to underline the point, that this team's biggest strengths and weaknesses are the same. And that it is this very unpredictability that makes the pundits rank them among the favourites even as they tear their hair out in dismay. Who knows what an Indian performance can depend on? Who knows why a team that scores 319/6 against one team, with all batsmen contributing, can then implode, in the very next game to the very same team in more or less similar conditions, to 191 all out?

It could be the moon in Venus, perhaps, or the fact that on the day, room service made the eggs over easy exactly how one particular player likes it...

When you read what follows, keep this in mind: Every other team in the World Cup can be expected to play to its set standards, plus or minus five. India can be expected to play to its standards, plus or minus 50 and there is no telling, ever, which it will be on the given day.

___________ Strengths ___________
Easily, the batting. With two of three players in Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag opening while the third drops into the middle; with Rahul Dravid coming in at one drop; with Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif in the middle order, the side on paper (and often, in practice) has the ammunition to hunt down any target, or set the impossible one.

___________ Weaknesses ___________
1) The fielding, wherein outstanding performers like Yuvraj and Kaif rub shoulders with passengers like Srinath, Kumble, Ganguly and others who have difficulty chasing down a stationary ball. 2) A reactive, rather than proactive, attitude in the field that sees some bowlers rotated by rote while others are forgotten entirely, all adding up to an inability to use all available resources to make things happen. 3) A bench strength to shudder at.

___________ Key players ___________
Listing the likes of Ganguly, Tendukar, Dravid, Sehwag et al in this list is pointless -- they, and the likes of Srinath, Zaheer and Harbhajan with the ball, have to fire anyway.

The real key to the batting lies in the performance of Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif in the middle order -- if those two strike a consistent vein of good form, they not only form a dangerous middle order combination, but will also free the three stroke-makers and permit them to bat with a greater degree of abandon.

Similarly with the ball, if Ashish Nehra as third seamer, Sanjay Bangar/Ajit Agarkar as the seam bowling all-rounder and Sehwag and Yuvraj as the part time spinners can between them produce 15-20 overs at between 4.5-5 rpo, they free up Srinath, Zaheer and Harbhajan to attack, provide the captain with containing options in the middle overs, and also with cover for any of the frontline bowlers having an off day (and you can bet good money that on any given day, at least one of them will be off).

___________ Liabilities ___________
The biggest one is their own unpredictability -- no one, including the players themselves, know how they will go on a given day. Fielding -- and field setting -- are rather more visible liabilities: Indian fielders are almost invariably placed too deep to save singles and are not, with a couple of honorable exceptions, swift enough to stop fours; the throwing is abysmal and together, these factors are worth at least 30-40 runs to any opposition. Add to this Dravid's keeping which, while strengthening the batting, can result in crucial chances going down.

___________ Chances out of ten ___________
Duh! On which day? It could either be 8/10, or 3/10. Okay, not to hedge -- call it 6/10 to get into the Super Six, and an even chance to go on to the next stage.

___________ Key games ___________

India plays six games; it needs to win four definitely to progress into the next round. Netherlands (Feb 12) and Namibia (Feb 23) should provide two of those wins. From a morale point of view, India needs a flat out effort against Australia (Feb 15) -- beating the defending champions, before they have had a chance to settle into their stride, will give the team the kind of adrenalin surge that echoes 1983. But practically speaking, the immediate target is to get into the Super Six and for this, the game versus Zimbabwe (Feb 19) and England (Feb 26) are absolutely vital -- win those, and India will at the least be 4-1, and will not need to leave it all to what could be an emotion-packed, nerve-wracking March 1 game against Pakistan.

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