World Cup season means an updated vocabulary. Words like balance, preparation, and undercooked begin to colour our conversations, like tuned percussion instruments in a symphony approaching its crescendo. Cricket, having shed the pretence of following rhythm and structure, picks up tempo almost abruptly, as pop-coloured flyers from the ICC hit the news wires. Teams — well, the non-Big Three members — face the brunt of it. They operate independently for most of the cycle and rarely get to tune their schedule adequately.
Consider the last ODI World Cup cycle. Since 2019, there has been a pandemic, two T20 World Cups in twelve months, and a mushrooming of T20 competitions across the globe to rival the IPL, BBL, and the Vitality Blast. In these four years, India have played 57 ODIs, while England and New Zealand, the two finalists from 2019, have played 36 each. Pakistan, the team with the best win-loss ratio in this period, have played a mere 28.
So, how do you measure preparation? Form in the lead-up months is the instinctive answer, but it can be misleading too. Thrice in the last 20 years — 2003, 2011, and 2015 — India have had strong World Cup campaigns after a tumultuous run-up. In 2003, after returning from a New Zealand tour where India lost seven out of nine matches, John Wright had to queue for a cab at the Mumbai airport. Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma’s team might not have to bother with conveyance, but their heart rate will be slightly above normal as the last warm-up lap begins.
Let’s get the question of form out of the way. Amongst teams playing in the 2023 ODI World Cup, India has the second-best win-loss ratio at 1.7 over the last four years. Given the high number of matches it has played, covering all conditions and situations, winning six out of every ten games is a strong record. If you shrink the timeline to the last two years, India fare even better with a ratio of 2.07. Their nerves, however, will come from three other factors: injuries, individual rhythm, and balance.
Jasprit Bumrah, Shreyas Iyer, and K L Rahul have been key cogs for India since the heartbreak of 2019. All three are returning from tough long-term injuries. They might make it to the Asia Cup in September, but the lack of adequate decompression before the grind of a World Cup schedule has its risks. It will take unbridled optimism to hope that all of them, if any, return to full fitness and form before India’s tournament opener against Australia in Chennai. And they won’t be alone in using the Asia Cup as a potential catapult.
Hardik Pandya, almost indispensable for India because of his skillset, averages 31 with the bat in 2023. More worryingly, in the 10 ODI innings he’s played this year, he finished six with a strike rate of less than 80. Suryakumar Yadav, India’s best alternative to Iyer and Rahul, and a potential game-changer with the bat, has a career average of 24.33 in ODIs. Elsewhere, neither Ishan Kishan nor Sanju Samson has nailed down the wicketkeeper’s spot in the absence of Rishabh Pant and Rahul.
After the ODI series in West Indies, Rohit Sharma bemoaned the lack of a stable number four. That observation will give keen observers of Indian cricket second-hand anxiety. It is a tune they’re all too familiar with, having heard it with disturbing regularity in the lead-up to, during, and after the 2019 ODI World Cup. Shreyas Iyer’s injury record has impeded what should’ve been a smooth transition.
Along with finding a pillar at number four, India have not yet healed their other aching joint from the last few years. The current Indian setup is unique: the batters don’t bowl and the bowlers don’t bat. If you take a calculated guess at the lineup against Australia, none of India’s top five can be depended upon for even a couple of steady overs in white-ball cricket. On the other hand, should India play Kuldeep alongside Bumrah, Siraj, and Shami, that’s a tail that starts at number eight. For perspective, England had Adil Rashid coming in at number 10 at the 2019 World Cup. He has 10 first-class centuries. In that final, New Zealand had Matt Henry batting at number 9. He averages 22 with the bat in first-class cricket.
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For too long, India’s Achilles’ heel has been the one rainy day at ICC tournaments. They look exceptional until things come unstuck on a key day, and there is no one to get the car back on the road. It has been a pattern across the last three ODI tournaments too. In the 2019 semi-final, during the soaring Jadeja and Dhoni partnership, everyone watching knew that New Zealand were one wicket away from sealing the match. The moment Jadeja went, India folded. Or take 2015, when India were left with more than 120 to get in eight overs, but with five wickets in hand. Again, Jadeja and Dhoni were at the crease. Again, Jadeja’s wicket led to a collapse. In multiple World T20s, India have been left a bowler or two short while defending in dewy conditions. At the last ODI World Cup, India had to stretch and grasp to include anyone with a semblance of bowling ability in their middle order. It is disturbing, the word here used carefully, that the same issue of balance can last over eight years.
To be able to win a World Cup, a lot of things need to come together — not least some luck. As their record shows over a long period, this team provides a lot of ground to park lofty hopes on. Making the semi-finals at three consecutive ODI tournaments — winning the two previous — is a show of consistency few others can match. On a good day, one can rest assured that this team will have the wares to see off most opposition.
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It is the rainy day that has been their undoing over the last decade. If that pattern repeats, much of the anguish will be well warranted. Because the question, understandably, will come down to preparation for when things don’t exactly go to plan. One can be a coincidence, four is an alarm.
Dev is a Chennai-based composer and writer