<b>Close-in:</b> SA looks favourite
India looks mentally prepared to take up the challenge of defending the title, but there seems to be an element of doubt over its form to do so
The mini cricket World Cup, as one would term the Champions Trophy, will get underway on June 1 in England and Wales.
England is always a challenging country to play cricket in, as one can encounter all the seasons in a single day. As a batsman, one always prays for sunshine, whereas the bowler, especially the swing bowler, looks up to the sky for a cloudy and heavy atmosphere. The variation in weather conditions requires a batsman to adapt accordingly and this makes batting very difficult. It becomes essential for players to be fleet footed to make the adjustments and play the ball much closer to them. These conditions need to be mastered expeditiously by the batsman. The bowler, especially from the Asian countries, needs to get the right length to be effective.
The Indian team seems mentally prepared to take up the challenge of defending the title, but there seems to be an element of doubt over its form to do so. The two practice games before their first match against Pakistan would be of utmost importance to tune themselves to the task.
The Indian side will encounter conditions that are drastically different from home. Although, many of them have had oodles of experience playing cricket in England earlier, the change required in technique and shot making is quite a task. On paper, Indian looks a formidable side with artistic batsmen in Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Kedar Jadhav, Ajinkya Rahane and Shikhar Dhawan. Along with them, the hard hitters Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni and Hardik Pandya would be a combination that most teams would love to have. The problem, unfortunately, is that none of the Indian batsmen seem to be at their best. Furthermore, the short format of the tournament will make it difficult for any side to recover from an early lapse.
The 50-over format has now become quite interesting. Most teams have through time experimented and formulated strategies that are workable. The 25 overs between the 15th and the 40th are now being utilised for consolidation before a last 10-over launch, provided wickets are intact, or else used as a recovery period if the side has lost early wickets. This is the period where I feel maximum innovation will come into force in this tournament. We may see teams changing their batting order to make a constructive thrust to improve the run rate even before the final assault. This is also the period when the medium pacers and spinners come into play.
India will miss a leg-spinner, though finger spinners have not been very effective in the month of June in England. Furthermore, the dampness in the wicket in the early part of the season may give rise to movement in the air and off the wicket. But the spongy slow bounce will give the batsmen time to adjust. Normally, the slip cordon comes into play in such conditions, but with less close-in fielders around in one-dayers, the batsmen will not unduly worry about thick or thin edges.
The most difficult decision for a captain in England is to understand when to have slip fielders in place. Kapil Dev did it very successfully during India’s triumphant 1983 World Cup campaign. In the final, the three catches taken by Sunil Gavaskar in slips were as important as Viv Richards’ catch taken by Kapil or the in-swinger by Balwinder Sandhu that cleaned up Gordon Greenidge. The Indian bowling side has three swing bowlers in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami and so, for me Rahane will need to be a certainty in the team, if not for his batting, then definitely for his slip catching.
South Africa, the number one side in the 50-over format, looks favourite to win the trophy. Somehow, they have always found ways to lose when confronted in an ICC world level tournament. In fact, they have been given the title of “chokers.” They have a team with good batsmen, quality fast bowlers and a great spinner in Imran Tahir. But their history seems to put pressure on them in crunch situations.
Australia, the reigning World Cup winners, will always be a challenge for the rest. However, the lack of good spinners and a genuine all-rounder will be their Achilles heel.
England at home is always a side to consider. They do have the best all rounder in Ben Stokes but the team overall seems to lack match winners required in limited over cricket. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan are sides that are young and in the rebuilding mode. These sides have some very talented youngsters and could act as spoilers for the frontrunners. They have nothing to lose. Without much expectation from them, they may play freely without any inhibitions.
The India versus Pakistan match will be the standout duel of the tournament. It will be an interesting battle between an established Indian side and some naturally talented young Pakistan cricketers. A treat for the millions of cricket connoisseurs.
New Zealand is the one most underestimated side, according to me. They have a very good fast bowling line-up, a technically good batting side and are used to wet and cold conditions. The Champions Trophy 2017 could be theirs if they play to their potential.
(The author is a former Indian cricketer)
Yajurvindra Singh