India surprises in Cricket World CupSURPRISES come in many packages and the delight on receiving a gift when least expected makes a smile grow wider. The Indian cricket team playing in the International Cricket Council's World Cup 2015 put smiles on the faces of their countless fans from across the world when they qualified for the knockout stage of the championship.
A peek into the recent past of the Indian team will not cut a rosy picture. India lost the four-Test series 0-2 and made matters worse for themselves and their fans when they could not qualify for the tri-series, which featured hosts Australia and England.
Not just the morale of the team but also that of the Indian cricket fan was at an all-time low as they were to start their campaign for the World Cup with a game against their archrivals Pakistan. Questions were being raised across forums - was the Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led team equipped to defend their title against tournament favourite teams like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand?
One of team India's biggest worries over the past few years has been the lack of bite in the bowling department. Right up to the warm-up games, before the beginning of the World Cup, there were concerns about the combination of bowlers and their ability to bowl the correct line in the right areas.
Even the die-hard optimist was totally dismayed when India allowed Australia to post a mammoth 371 in the first warm-up match ahead of the biggest tournament of the cricketing world. The Indian bowling was at the centre of all blame, prompting acerbic reactions from former Indian cricketers including the legendary Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev.
They had more salt rubbed into their wounds by international worthies like Rodney Hogg who stated that India did not have the bowling unit to retain the World Cup. Not just the bowling, the credentials of the famed Indian batting line-up was also questioned, thanks to their dismal performance in the tri-series that preceded the World Cup.
On Feb 15, the whole equation changed when Dhoni led his team out to play their tournament opener against Pakistan. India had never lost a World Cup encounter against Pakistan and while the official broadcast partner of the tournament released an advertisement lampooning Pakistan, the Indian team also decided not to give their opponents any quarter.
One distinctly saw the positive body language of the Indian team when they trounced their traditional rivals into the ground at Adelaide. The batsmen came to the party scoring 300 runs and were supported fully by India's bugbear: The bowlers. "Playing Pakistan in the opening game was a boon for team India," said Lalchand Rajput, the former Indian opener who had also coached team India on their 2008 tour of Australia.
India has never lost to Pakistan in a World Cup encounter, a fact that motivated the team to keep the record intact. "India's momentum continued after the game against Pakistan and the boost took them through the game against South Africa," added Rajput. The positive momentum created by two big wins helped India take a leadership position in Pool B and helped them top the group.
What caused a sudden turnaround in the fortunes of the Indian team? What made the bowlers, who had struggled right through the Test and One-Day series in Australia, come back and perform with consistency? What was the formula used by the team management to get the team back on track for the most important tournament of the cricketing world?
Many believe that the clean break taken by the team, after a long and tough tour Down Under, made a huge difference in their approach. The team management realised that the "fatigue factor" needed to be addressed and gave the team a holiday, away from cricket, to regain their energy and come back to the ground with a fresh frame of mind.
The rest proved crucial to the team that was on its toes for three months in daunting conditions. "The team can get jaded after a long and difficult tour, and the break helped the team to get back," said W.V. Raman, a former India batsman and the current coach of Tamil Nadu. The rest also gave the team management an opportunity to introspect and plan their strategies for the World Cup.
Indian team director Ravi Shastri disclosed the team mantra to defend the title they had won in Mumbai in 2001. He wanted his lads to enjoy themselves, not treat the World Cup as a burden but as a carnival. He also wanted the team to have a blast while giving it their best shot.
It is a no-brainer that the Indian team strategy revolves around their strength in the batting department. The worry was, and has been for a long time, will the bowlers support their batting teammates? The games against Pakistan and South Africa showed that the bowlers had learnt their lessons and were, thankfully, putting theory into practice.
Playing in Australia is a different ball game and getting used to the conditions takes a long time. Rajput, who guided the team to a One-Day series victory in 2008, said that it took the current lot a long time to settle down and find their rhythm. "The team approach changes when you start winning matches," said Rajput.
Former India spinner Nilesh Kulkarni complemented Rajput's thoughts and attributed the magic run of the Indian team to getting their strategy in place: "Throughout the league phase, the front-line bowlers got rid of the main batsmen in the opposition and the lower order was exposed. It was great to see R. Ashwin bowl the right 'outside-the-off stump' line and bowl to get wickets rather than take a defensive mindset."
Rajput also felt that Australian wickets that helped pace and bounce in December are wearing out in the middle of March due to the number of matches played. "The long calendar has worked to India's advantage in the tournament and the team has taken maximum advantage of that," concluded Rajput.
Whatever may be the fortunes of team India in the World Cup, their remarkable comeback goes to show that the future smiles brightly for Indian cricket.
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