The Indians strained every nerve in the four-Test series against Australia but ended with a 0-2 margin. They were so drained after that they sleepwalked through the one-day tri-series, later labeled by their team director as a “waste of time.” Given their labour coming into the tournament, the World Cup was supposed to be a lost cause for India. But halfway through their group campaign, they are the team to beat, along with New Zealand.
The pressure of a Pakistan match? A 76-run win. The might of the South Africans? A 130-run win. UAE done and dusted in just over 50 overs. The tide has turned so quickly and emphatically that it has started to seem all too easy for the defending champions. As things stand, there is room for an argument that India are in need of a stiffer challenge before the knockouts.
The direction of the questions in the press conferences has neatly reflected the transformation. You haven’t had a win in all these months in Australia, so how hard it is to go up against Pakistan with that background? Would you have preferred a different team? After the Adelaide victory, MS Dhoni was asked what magic wand he had used to lift his team.
Then it was about tackling the famed South African pace attack as well as scoring on a massive MCG outfield. After that game, the theme was India’s astonishing turnaround and how well certain individuals had done. The UAE rout only carried forward both those lines of questioning.
On the eve of the West Indies match, R Ashwin was asked whether India had talked about finishing top of the group so that they could face the fourth-placed team from the other group in the quarter-final. Ashwin pointed out that there were three more group games to go, but the query was not out of place.
The players certainly deserve credit for stepping up their performances in the big event. But they have been so clinical that India have not really been tested.
Among their remaining group opponents, West Indies seem to have the best chance of doing that on Friday at the WACA Ground. No disrespect to Ireland and Zimbabwe, but good luck trying to this contain this group of batsmen on the outfields of Seddon Park and Eden Park.
For now, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli have scored 410 runs between them. The next-highest: Suresh Raina with 80. The earliest the third wicket has fallen has been in the 44th over. The second has not gone down before the 28th. India might actually benefit from some batsmen falling early to the new balls and the middle order thrust into a tough situation.
Can a West Indies fast bowler rattle them enough? Get Raina in to face a few bouncers from fresh legs. Get Ajinkya Rahane to dig in and do some rebuilding. Get Dhoni to do something other than try and swing a few sixes in the last five overs.
The same goes for the bowlers. The longest India have had to wait for their first wicket has been the fourth over. It has allowed the spinners to come on, settle down and do their thing. “I think it’s huge in the sense if you get a couple of wickets up front, then the entire game turns on its head,” Ashwin said. “As far as the spinner is concerned, when I come in, I’ve got that little bit more freedom.”
The freedom in the middle overs has meant that two of three matches didn’t last enough to reach the death overs. And it was only Misbah-ul-Haq’s fight that dragged Pakistan’s innings to the 47th and only to reduce the margin of defeat.
If a Chris Gayle or a Dwayne Smith can hit the fast bowlers out of the attack, then the spinners will feel some pressure. And if that pressure carries through the middle overs and into the batting Powerplay and further, how would India react?
Not so long ago, India’s bowlers and the slog used to be the most damaging combination going around. For themselves, They need to find out if that has changed.
A knockout match is not when they will want all of the above to happen in this World Cup for the first time. For their own good, India need to be tested by West Indies on Friday.