Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Litmus test for MS Dhoni

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s biggest test is round the corner. While expectations are always high around Indian cricket, they tend to get stratospheric when Team India is defending a world title. Ask Kapil about 1987 and he will tell you how the team’s campaign to defend the World Cup was doomed by anticipation even before the first ball had been bowled.

Much like the ’83 World Cup victory, the 2007 T-20 world championship triumph was a seminal event and after just two years the burden of expectation is already weighing on Team India. The defeat in the warmup game at the hands of New Zealand must have been like a wake up call.

It is strange but true that the skipper believes that spin bowling, one of the great strengths of Indian cricket, will once again play a key role. Given the fact that the cricket is being played in early June in England, it is hard to estimate how much of a factor slowing up the ball to deny batsmen the pace to generate power will be.

The early summer conditions usually help seam and swing bowling, which is what suited the Indian team of 1983 with its plethora of medium paced all rounders who could make the ball wobble in the air. A question mark may have to be placed against how effective spin will be even if we do implicitly trust Dhoni’s judgment, which has invariably proved to be accurate.

Seeing how well the veteran Anil Kumble bowled in the IPL final in which he took up the challenge of bowling straight up at Adam Gilchrist, the captain of victorious Deccan Chargers, it is easy to predict continued success for his fellow spinners from a country with a rich heritage in this branch.

What lends Team India such a formidable look in most forms of the game is the variety of talent at its command, be it power batting or fast and spin bowling. The same cannot be said of Australia, who are seemingly more unidimensional now because of a preponderance of quick bowlers but no quality spinners.

And yet Australia and South Africa are probably the opponents that the defending champion must fear most. Do the Aussies have the batting prowess to boast of a couple of stroke options for each ball bowled at them as the Indians seem to have and which the South Africa seemed to have picked up on, especially in the IPL experience.

A quality spinner like Harbhajan Singh is likely to produce the goods in any conditions. But whether the non-regulars who have performed in the past like Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh or even Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma after their IPL success do it when the conditions only allow the ball to slide and not spin is to be seen.

In the ’07 edition, medium slow bowling and spin were effective on South African pitches and conditions. England may be different unless the summer is hot so early on as to allow the surfaces to grip the spinning ball. South Africa, which has two good spinners in the T-20 format now, will also be hoping that their variety in attack will give them the edge they are seeking.

Dhoni was emphatic about spin on the day that Vettori picked up wickets for New Zealand. Dan is one of the few high quality spinners in world cricket and so it is difficult to draw conclusions solely from his success on that day at Lord’s. The Indian skipper’s strategy will obviously spin around his slow bowling options, which are many.

What should give the champions greater hope is the long batting lineup that packs a wallop right down to Yusuf Pathan in the late middle order. The openers may have seemed jaded during IPL but the World T-20 should prove inspiring enough for Sehwag and Gambhir to regain form.

For Team India to emerge victorious, their batsmen must rock for when they do the team’s cricket tends to pick up in all departments. More than spin to win, it might be a clear case of strike with the willow to win. The big guns do pack a mighty wallop and let’s look forward to their success.

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