It took India more than two decades to break a World Cup jinx. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men were the first side, since the inaugural 50-over World Cup was held in England in 1975, to win the tournament at home in 2011. No home team has won the five ICC World T20s held so far.
The pressure of playing at home may have weighed too heavily on teams in the past. Whatever the reason, in the last four years, that theory has been sufficiently debunked. In 2015, the Aussies repeated what the Indians had done four years previously, winning at home. And fittingly, the boys in blue are among the favourites for the World T20 that gets rolling in India on March 8.
International cricket has seen home sides dominating to a large extent. Not many teams travel well. Besides, the hosts use everything at their disposal to make the most of familiar conditions. Wickets are tailor-made, team composition is just what the doctor orders. Add to that the experience of playing any number of pressure matches in tournaments like the IPL and the Big Bash.
Gone are the days when players used to blink in pressure situations created by having to chase big totals with 65,000 fans in attendance. They are seasoned now, because that’s what they do every other day to earn their millions in Twenty20 leagues around the world. Even a newbie like Hardik Pandya wouldn’t take a backward step facing a Dale Steyn with 15 to get off the last over, because he has done that in the IPL.
That’s exactly what Dhoni referred to after his side wrapped up the T20I series against Sri Lanka on a pitch that suited his spinners in Visakhapatnam. “The experience of having played the IPL over here makes a lot of difference,” Dhoni noted. “Out of the eight seasons, we’ve played seven in India. We’ve got a lot of players who have got good experience of playing in India.”
The IPL has seen the emergence of players like Pandya and Jaspreet Bumrah. India have struggled for long to find a medium-paced all-rounder, and a pacer who can bowl yorkers at the death. While Pandya meets the requirements for the first role, Bumrah, who was drafted into the team in place of an injured Mohammed Shami during the limited-overs tour of Australia in January, was a God-send when it came to the latter. Bumrah, who learnt the nuances of the yorker from the master of the craft, his MI teammate Lasith Malinga, could be hugely beneficial to the side if he continues in similar vein.
The 22-year-old Bumrah has the 36-year-old Ashish Nehra who got a second lease of life after he started playing for Chennai Super Kings for company. The wily Delhi veteran knows how to bowl in T20 cricket and even though his fielding is a bit of a liability, Dhoni would look past it if Nehra can get him breakthroughs. Shami is recuperating from injury, and if he doesn’t get fit in time, India will probably go in with Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
While the pace bowling unit looks settled after the recent battering in the ODIs in Australia, the spinners are Dhoni’s trump cards. In Indian conditions, R Ashwin is a magician, his Man of the Series-winning performance against Lanka another pointer to the same. Dhoni, who has played eight seasons with him in CSK, knows how to handle the thinking pro, and the spinner is often Captain Cool’s go-to man in crunch situations.
“Ashwin is the pick of the bowlers when it comes to using the new ball with seven men in the circle,” Dhoni said. “He still flights the ball, asks the batsmen to step out and play the big shot. That is crucial in this format. At times you tend to bowl too flat, but he is somebody who mixes it up really well.”
Ravindra Jadeja is a strong second-in-line in the spin department. Even in the back-up positions, the Indian team management has tempered it just right. Harbhajan Singh and Pawan Negi (the costliest Indian player of this year’s IPL auction) can practically walk into the first XI of most other teams in the World T20.
No discussion on Indian cricket is ever complete without dwelling on the strength of its batting line-up. Over the years, batting has been India’s strength and it’s no different this time. The likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and Dhoni are especially sharp in this format. Even if a couple of them are off-colour in a game or two, 20 overs on batting beauties is too short a time to put these towering talents under any real pressure.
There are a couple of points worth mulling over. The difference in the quality of the top-order across teams is becoming smaller by the day. Most of the teams have players who know all about playing in the sub-continent. There are South Africans, Australians and West Indians who win matches for their Indian franchises in the IPL just as regularly as the Dhonis and the Rainas do. The Indian team has to ensure that somebody like an AB de Villiers or a David Warner doesn’t have one such day against them in the knockout stages of the tournament.
Just as the Indian cricket fans adore Yuvraj Singh for what he did in the 2011 World Cup, not too many have forgotten what happened in the T20 World Cup final in Dhaka in 2014. It was a day when the superstar couldn’t put bat to ball, his 21-ball 11 perhaps the decisive factor in India’s defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka. It’s not about Yuvraj, it could happen to anybody – T20 is a merciless format, often fickle in character. All the good work can go down the drain if a team goes off the boil for even two overs. That’s one danger Dhoni’s boys will have to guard against. If they can do that, the Eden Gardens on April 3 may resemble Wankhede of April 2, 2011.