Another world cup T20 is here, and the fact that it is set to be a quadrennial event from now on is testament to the fact that this is no more a simple carnival that comes around every second year. From now on, it is not your random weekend party - it is the carefully-planned big bash that you have to get right. It has become important enough to be exclusive enough. ODIs, watch out!!
A lot has been written about this format. And a lot of that has been rewritten already in the short lifetime of the format. Spinners were supposed to be cannon fodder. Over the years, the likes of Vettori, Ajmal and Ashwin have comfortably dispelled that notion. It was supposed to be a slog fest. Kohli, the No. 1 ranked T20 batsman in the world rarely plays a shot he would not play in whites. But the one thing that has remained true in the context of this format is the unpredictability. We have seen five different winners in the first five editions. And two of the strongest contenders in this edition - SA and Australia - are yet to win it. It can be pretty foolhardy to put your money on a single team when one bad over could send a team home. But a bell curve of all predictions by pundits would have India bang in the middle.
Much has been written about the form of this side. Ten wins off eleven matches this year including a clean sweep down under is about as good as consistency gets in T20. The only loss came on a green surface at Pune which is as unlikely to be served up in the world cup as it is to expect Chris Gayle to run a three.
Dhoni usually does not give in to praising his team prematurely. So, when he does go ahead and say that the team is playing in the sixth gear, the cricketing fraternity does take note. Form is a fickle mistress though and more so in T20. Nothing can be taken for granted - especially, in a group containing New Zealand, Pakistan, Australia and surprise crest-riders Bangladesh. But it is hard to bet against India being one of the two to progress.
India usually enter major tournaments with a settled batting line-up and it is no different this time. Rohit and Virat are among the most gluttonous run getters in this format, and their run making is often at more than a fair clip. If you have to defend T20 batting as an art, look no further than Rohit and if you have to defend it as a science, present Virat Kohli. Completing the potent top three is Shikhar Dhawan who has run into some form of late and that augurs well for the team. New Zealand or Australia or even England might get in a nomination for the title of the most explosive top order, but India has the most reliable top order, hands down.
A middle order consisting of Raina, Yuvraj, Dhoni and Pandya might not put the fear of god in opposition bowling line-ups, but given the prevailing conditions, they are more than solid. Not much is being said or written about them in the run up to the tournament as the top order has left them precious little to do in matches this year. All four will be employing real big bat swings in the nets though, because more often than not, they are likely to just be summoned to start swinging from ball one. And they definitely have the pedigree to shore up in case of a rare collapse.
What sets this team apart from most other Indian squads entering big tournaments is how settled the bowling line-up looks. Whenever India has performed well in big tournaments, the bowlers have punched above their weight. As recently as the 2015 world cup, the bowling unit suffered from collective amnesia as they put behind them a long and disastrous tour against Australia and cranked it up from day one. The result? We were the only team to bowl out oppositions in all group matches and the quarterfinal. This time around, the bowling unit might as well put in a repeat performance. The only difference is that it will be anything but unexpected. The wily and brittle oldie Ashish Nehra has combined admirably well with Malinga’s IPL teammate (in no small measure the reason for his deadly yorkers) Jasprit Bumrah to bookend India’s bowling efforts with wickets at either end of the innings. And in Ashwin, we have one of the bowlers to look out for in the tournament. The support acts are not doing bad either, and for once, Dhoni’s forehead is not ragged terrain. He knows who his death bowlers are and that is already much more than he could say about many of the attacks he has led.
Captain of the ship
If Dhoni would have his way, nothing would ever be about him. He pulls off ‘rub-your-eyes-in-disbelief’ run chases with unerring accuracy. And then he pulls off a solitary stump from the ground. And then he pulls away from the spotlight allowing his younger mates to take over. Almost always he walks out to the pressers when the going is tough and sends in others for the fair-weather conferences. He is the towering superstar of this team, but the campaign will not be about Dhoni and rightly so.
But it is hard to miss the fact that life comes full circle for him. His first task was to lead a motley group of boys in a ‘touch-me-not’ tournament for the seniors. He would win it for us. He would then lead teams containing the legends with their conscious and subconscious egos resting lightly on him, collecting trophies a dozen on the way. And then, he would be right out there picking up the pieces, when the legends started to fade. And when they left, he would build the team back again, backing the right horses and giving them longer rope than most fans would like, risking his legacy in the process. A cursory glance across the Palk Strait would show us the enormity of the rebuilding task a team faces when legends call it a day.
And here we are, almost a decade after that stirring campaign in 2007, three failed campaigns and a botched summit clash in the last edition later. Dhoni has been the bedrock of the Indian machine, sometimes revving and sometimes stuttering, but always dutifully chugging along. Since giving up the longest format, he looks leaner and fitter and given the bulldog that he is, it will not be a surprise if he lasts until the 2019 ODI WC in England. But there is the chance that this could be his last major ICC tournament for India. And for all his contributions to the team, it wouldn’t be all that bad for him to end on a high. The fact that Dhoni himself is back to sending balls into orbit only increases the probability of that happening.
Virat Kohli – 100+ average and strike rate above 130 in 2016 coming in at No. 3. Enough said.
Ravi Ashwin – Possibly best spinner in the world right now. RPO under 6 in WC T20s.
Jasprit Bumrah – Lethal yorkers. With a weird action, unfamiliarity can work in his favour.
Rohit Sharma – When the rest of them get it right, we have a good score. When this one does, we have twenty more.
In a few hours from now, Dhoni and Williamson will walk out for the toss at the Jamtha. The crowd will be anything but bipartisan. The atmosphere will a fan’s delight and an umpire’s nightmare. And amid all that din, the summit beckons and more than ever. India will start seeming tolerant again as a billion heartbeats in unison will egg this team on. And the nation will bleed blue.
The countdown has begun, 6 wins to go.
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