Rest the mind and focus on matters

Jaideep Ghosh

cricket_fansIndia’s ICC World Cup examination always comes in two stages. One is the conquering of Pakistan, while the second is their bid for the Cup itself.

For their fanatic followers, clearing the second test is optional – if India win the World Cup, fine. Otherwise we can live with it.

But the first is compulsory. India cannot lose to Pakistan, come what may.

The year 2011 had seen the boys in blue win both exams with flying colours and the nation had gone mad.

But this year may be different. Australia won’t be half as hospitable and the Indians will have their job cut out if they are to retain their title.

Whatever may be the result, the fans will forgive them since they have already cleared the compulsory exam of beating Pakistan. Unless, of course, they are pitted against one another again in the knockout stage.

Nevertheless, that leaves the rest of the tournament still to be played, and Sunday’s victory is possibly the best tonic the team needed after what has been a torrid test Down Under so far.

India can now forget about Pakistan and focus on the rest of the contests, beginning with the one against South Africa on February 22. That will actually prove how well India have prepared for life beyond Pakistan.

Their first match showed that a lot of thought has gone into the batting. India are in no rush to try and carve out humongous scores. They have decided to pace themselves, keep wickets intact in the first 10-15 overs and create scores that they can then defend.

That said, this plan almost came off the wheels against Pakistan, as they somehow conjured up a few indifferent overs towards the end of their innings and were left at least 20 runs short of where they should have ended up.

But still, skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s concern won’t be the batting. It’s his bowling that will give him sleepless nights.

Make no mistake, the performance against Pakistan, efficient though it was, was not perfect. It was our traditional rivals’ traditional lack of ability to chase any sort of target that made the bowling look better than it was.

Of the lot, Ravichandran Ashwin looked thankfully good. He stuck to what he does best – bowl off-spin – and it worked brilliantly.

Mohd. Shami looks leaner and meaner and was on the money. As was Mohit Sharma, though he would really have to be exact in his delivery against teams like South Africa. Ravindra Jadeja was efficient.

The concern is Umesh Yadav. The euphoria of beating Pakistan hides all sins, but the fact of the matter is that he was all over the park, barring the spell in the middle of the inning. Against teams that chase runs better – South Africa, Australia and even New Zealand or England, he will be the biggest question mark in the Indian attack.

The ICC World Cup normally is a slew of matches in the group stages, and then the real business end starts with the knockout rounds.

India should make the quarter-finals without much trouble. But in this tournament of drop-down pitches, every opponent, barring possibly the United Arab Emirates, will challenge the Indian bowling.

Ireland ran down the West Indies’ 305 in Nelson, New Zealand, on Monday with nearly four overs to spare, while Zimbabwe had made South Africa, including Dale Steyn, struggle.

The West Indies, nowhere near the team they were, still possess enough firepower to destroy any attack.

So India will be well served if their bowlers can at least try to bowl to their fields. Yadav, and to an extent Shami, invariably tend to pitch at least on delivery, if not more, in every over down the leg-side, giving away free and unaffordable runs.

Dhoni’s irritation with this profligate line was evident on Sunday, even when India had well and truly won the match. Against stronger batting line-ups, these mistakes can be fatal.

But all that said, India have still overcome their most crucial mental test and the body language looks good. Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina were among the runs, which should be reassuring, mostly to themselves. The follow-up will come good – Dhoni is too good a batsman to fail frequently.

Yet what will win the World Cup is the entire package – batting, bowling and fielding. Not every team is Pakistan, irrespective of the mental battles. They have way better batting and bowling, so India’s real test has just become. There’s nothing optional about those.