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India’s World Cup campaign on the right track, literally

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By Jamie Alter

That the Indian cricket team was one of the favourites for the ongoing 2023 ICC ODI World Cup was not up for debate. Yes, the team management had made some puzzling selections – at least to the outside viewer – in the couple of months leading into the World Cup, and then called back out of the blue Ravichandran Ashwin for the tournament despite the fact that the off spinner had played an ODI 18 months before, and just two ODIs in six years, but given India’s home record in the format there were very few challengers to the title outside.

Look at it this way: since 2015, just one team has landed up in India and beaten India in an ODI series. And that is Australia, who won 3-2 in 2019 and 2-1 earlier this year. Prima facie, to defeat India in India is next to impossible. In the last five years, at home in bilateral series, India have won 25 of 37 ODIs. In this time, their batsmen and bowlers have perfected the art of scoring 350 and bowling out opponents in home conditions.

Which brings us to India’s campaign so far in the World Cup. They started on October 8 against Australia in Chennai, on what turned out to be a very traditional Chennai surface despite the pitch being re-laid before the World Cup. India picked three spinners, which included Ashwin who actually started bowling in the match before Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja, and who put doubts in the Australians’ minds in his first over, in which he found sharp turn and bounce. It had been surmised that the re-laid strip at the MA Chidambaram Stadium might not play as it has in the past, meaning slow and dry. When India and Australia met there in March, in the deciding ODI of the aforementioned series, India failed to chase a target of 270 as Australia’s spin pair of Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar shared six wickets on what Rohit Sharma termed a tough pitch.

Come October 8, a similar track presented itself and India’s three spinners had a terrific day on it. Of the 49.3 overs that Australia faced, 30 were delivered by the combination of Ashwin, Jadeja and Kuldeep for 104 runs and the return of six wickets. That is where the match was won, with all due respect to Virat Kohli and KL Rahul who rescued the chase from 2/3 with a partnership for the ages.

From that win, one started to wonder what kind of surfaces India would play on for the remainder of their eight league matches. Clearly things were going to be different, given the home advantage India wanted to have. Some grounds were going to play to tradition, such as Chennai, where Australia’s lack of a second spinner told, and some were going to break from tradition. Such as Delhi’s renamed Arun Jaitley Stadium, where in 40-plus years of ODIs only twice had the 300-mark been breached. Suddenly the Kotla, as it is known, turned into a bowlers’ nightmare as South Africa smashed 428/5 against Sri Lanka in a match in which a record 754 runs were scored.

A few days later, India played Afghanistan in Delhi and smashed them on a flat track. This was not the traditional Kotla surface with assistance to the spinners, and on which batting could be sluggish. This was a belter, on which full credit is due to Jasprit Bumrah for taking four wickets for just 39 runs as Afghanistan were kept to 272/8 in their 50 overs, before Rohit hurried his way to 131 off 84 deliveries, hitting 16 fours and five sixes.

Whisper it softly, but it’s almost as if India are handpicking what kinds of surfaces they play on. A turner in Chennai, a risky proposition given the team’s problems versus spin, but one designed to accommodate Ashwin as the third spinner. A belter in Delhi, to negate the threat of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb ur Rehman and Mohammad Nabi and to give India’s batsmen some confidence heading into the mother of all clashes against Pakistan on October 14 in Ahmedabad.

The Narendra Modi Stadium has hosted two utterly contrasting Test matches in the past three years, one which lasted less than three days as India’s spinners claimed 18 of the 20 English wickets to fall, and the second this year on which 1226 runs were amassed for the loss of 24 wickets as a dull draw ensured India won the Border Gavaskar Trophy. Since then, the IPL matches played at that venue have generally been high-scoring on a flat deck with some occasional bounce for fast bowlers.

But will India ask for such a track up against Pakistan’s pace attack this Saturday? It is highly unlikely. We can expect a turning track, so that India can swap Ashwin back into the 11 in place of Shardul Thakur who replaced him for the Delhi match. India have three superior spinners to Pakistan’s struggling pair of Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz and have better players of spin than Pakistan do. It should surprise nobody if the Ahmedabad pitch on Saturday starts to turn, after two months of boundary-laden cricket during the IPL to follow a lifeless Test match in March.

Yes, India have the players to succeed in all conditions in home ODIs, but their two matches in the World Cup so far are indication enough that that the advantage is firmly with them. I will say it again – this is India’s World Cup to lose.

(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author and actor.)