At the end of India’s Pool B Group stage, not many would have seen this coming. India started their World Cup campaign with a knockout game against Australia, were slaughtered again after being destroyed during the tri-series, and then began the official tournament with an unpredictable match against rivals Pakistan.
One month later, India is one of two teams in the World Cup to still be unbeaten. For the first time ever, the team has won all its group games – 6 in total – and will head into the quarterfinals against Bangladesh on a 10-game World Cup winning streak under Dhoni. Many, including yours truly, are gladly eating their predictions and words. Because this is a true turnaround. In every sense of the term.
Many players have been responsible for this. Before India’s quarterfinal on Thursday, let us take a look at what exactly changed their fortunes overnight:
BALLS TO FORM
India became only the second team after South Africa in World Cup cricket to bowl the opposition out 6 times in a row. This is irony of the highest order, because they entered the tournament with not one bowler sure about their form, and had struggled to take wickets throughout their tour Down Under. Quite simply, they were the most fragile bowling team in the tournament, with no experience and confidence under their belts. Suddenly, though, led by Shami, and buoyed by Mohit Sharma’s inclusion at the expense of an injured Ishant Sharma, this bowling bunch decided to wake up. They became efficient, nippy, methodical and smart – much like the 2011 bunch, led by Zaheer Khan. Shami is currently the highest wicket-taker of the tournament, which is a remarkable feat considering his inability to keep the ball in play just 40 days ago. What’s more, except for the one bad game against Zimbabwe, R. Ashwin has returned to basics and become India’s frontline spinner again. He has also hidden India’s only weak link, Jadeja, by consistently performing and keeping the runs down in the middle overs.
MS Dhoni, who had to miss the birth of his first child due to this 4-month long Aussie tour, must have been a frustrated man when the tournament began. Not only were his players tired and uninspired, he had retired from test cricket so that he could take this squad forward, uncompromised and fresh, in ODIs. But it wasn’t working. The time off between the tri-series and the World Cup, as well as the week-long gaps between their first 3 group games, seems to have worked for him though. He got some time out in the middle against West Indies, and went one further against Zimbabwe – bailing a brittle top-order out with Raina and pulling off the perfect record. His keeping and chattering behind the stumps has been entertaining, and his players seem to be finally responding to his favorite format.
Shikhar Dhawan hasn’t been all that consistent in the World Cup, but he still has two centuries to his name. That’s the difference between him and Rohit at the top – he converts his luck and captalizes on decent form. His knock against South Africa set the tone for the rest, and his century against Ireland came at an important time. He failed against Zimbabwe, West Indies and UAE, but those were the games the middle order and the bowlers got some good practice in.
This isn’t a blind home World Cup where each and every human being wildly speculates about how India could win every game and break every record for Sachin Tendulkar. We are playing Down Under – traditionally not a great hunting ground – and even managed to win the last two games in New Zealand. The fans who have traveled to both countries, as well as the local Indians who have filled grounds like the MCG and Sydney, are the ones who have kept the team’s spirits high, and made them feel right at home with their vociferous support. Even the games in Hamilton and Auckland were full of Indian families keen to catch a rare glimpse of their heroes.
RAINA IN YELLOW
Suresh Raina, who has blown hot and cold in ODIs for years now, has played like he is donning the yellow CSK jersey. His crucial innings against Pakistan as well as his match-winning century against Zimbabwe were instrumental, and his energy on the field is difficult to replace. He is always the first fielder to run to the bowler at the fall of any wicket, and the batsman who celebrates openly for every other of his colleagues when they reach landmarks. His attitude goes a long way in keeping this team together, on and off the field.