ICC World T20: Balanced India must cut through 'favourites' noise to rewrite history - Firstpost
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ICC World T20: Balanced India must cut through 'favourites' noise to rewrite history

"I think the favourites for this tournament are India, simply on the fact that they are very good in home conditions": England captain Eoin Morgan.

"No doubt India will be favourites to win the title": New Zealand captain Kane Williamson.

“India are favourites to win the title for the home condition advantage": South Africa captain Faf Du Plessis.

"There's no doubt that India are going to be big favourites, with the balance of their team and the conditions": Australia all-rounder Shane Watson.

"In my opinion they're (India) the team to beat at the T20 World Cup. They're the favourites": Former Australia captain Michael Clarke.

It's almost as if almost every captain, player and former player was given the same recorded tape and asked to paraphrase the quote during the pre-World T20 press conferences. This might, arguably, be the first time that any team will head into a World T20 as an overwhelming favourite.

Team India. PTI

Team India. PTI

But an year ago, with one eye on the World T20, one of India's major concerns was the dearth of T20Is they had played. The real preparations for the tournament began in earnest with the home series against South Africa in October last year. They lost the three-match series 2-0 and the rustiness was palpable. They finally took a head start with T20I series wins over inexperienced and relatively weak Australia and Sri Lanka sides but those weren't real tests - the  sort of challenge that would test them to their limits and gauge their real ability ahead of the World T20.

Then came the Asia Cup. Five thumping wins in five matches to lift the title almost sealed the belief that they will enter World T20 as the team to beat. India made most of the opportunities presented before the mega event which has doubled up as confidence booster going into the tournament. In fact they've been rampant in last couple of months, having won 10 out of their last 11 T20Is and a majority of them, in a resounding fashion. The home conditions play a big role in their favourites tag.

The tag instills confidence but what it also brings is added pressure.

Back in 2007 when India won the inaugural World T20, they had gone into the tournament as underdogs. They had faced the disappointment of group stage exit in the 50-over World Cup and it was an inexperienced but vibrant side led by MS Dhoni that had headed into the World T20 without the weight of expectations and that, probably, allowed them to play with freedom.

However, they had a tough time from then on as they failed to make it to the semis of the next three editions. It was in the last edition, 2014, that they finally broke the run to make it to the final before losing to Sri Lanka. But that year too, the team was not fancied much heading into the tournament. So it's a different ball game all together this time around.

The hosts indeed look like a strong force thanks to finding the balance that had eluded them for a while. They have good all-round depth in the squad. The emergence of Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya, along with Ashish Nehra's second-coming has provided Dhoni a boost in India's perennial weak-link - the pace bowling department.

After the Australia T20I series, one of India's concerns was their powerplay bowling. But Bumrah, Ravichandran Ashwin and Nehra have done a tremendous job to provide some relief. Dhoni had hinted earlier that if Mohammad Shami is fit and firing, he will take place of Nehra who might be unlucky to miss out but then it's better to have excess options than lack of them.

A fit Shami and Bumrah will also play crucial role at the death. Bumrah is turning out to be an excellent bowler at the end of innings with his ability to deliver yorkers on consistent basis while Shami has done it before as well.

However, the one thing that will set India apart from other teams is their spin bowling strength. The spinners will play a crucial role in Indian conditions. Ashwin's quality in these conditions is redoutable while Jadeja can be deadly on Indian pitches. With more than useful part-timers in Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina, India have one of the most experienced as well as potent spin attacks in the tournament. Ashwin's role in the powerplays will be important too.

In the last one year (Since January 2015), India's spinners boast of the best average among the top eight nations - 17.29 and have the lowest economy rate of 6.09 which only makes it ominous for the rest of the teams.

India's bowling department looks complete after a long time.

The hosts' batting looks settled. Most of the responsibility will need to be taken by the formidable top order, with the likes of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli in blistering form. Since Jan 2015, India's top 3 have averaged 38.16 - second only to New Zealand (48.68). Kohli alone has a T20 average of 79.20 in nine innings, at a strike rate of nearly 140. Those are staggering numbers in the shortest format.

One of Dhoni's worries was the side's lower order and finishing, but Yuvraj, Dhoni and Pandya have given hope in the last few matches.

It is this balance plays a very crucial factor going into the tournament.

“More often than not, the team that we have played with looks like a team that can play in any condition, especially in this format, Dhoni said after win over UAE in Asia Cup. "Let’s not talk about the 50-over format. T20Is we can play with this team anywhere in the world – three proper seamers, two spinners and, if needed, part-timers. I think it’s the right combination. And even if you go for a few extra runs, with the batting that we have – till No. 8 we can bat – I think we can look to get those extra runs if the opposition scores off us. It looks like a very balanced team,” Dhoni added.

India won its warm-up match against West Indies but lost out to South Africa narrowly in their final one. However, going by the atmosphere created by the crowd, especially at Wankhede on Saturday night, it seemed as if these were just another high-voltage international matches and we can expect crazier, more vociferous support than this during the main tournament.

India's opponents in the group are New Zealand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Australia. There will not be an easy win and a tough ask will become tougher if India do not get off a good start against the Kane Williamson-led New Zealand side - arguably the other top contender from this group -- in the Super Stage opener on Tuesday. Considering the fact that Pakistan are struggling, Australia are yet to find their feet in this format and Bangladesh haven't played any matches in India for a while, apart from the qualifiers, in last ten years, New Zealand offer the biggest threat.

Playing in front of the home crowd can pump up the team but it can also add extra pressure. Dhoni and his men have done it before in the 2011 World Cup in front of the home crowd, but this is T20 cricket - the game at its unpredictable best. No home team has won the World T20 so far. No team has won the tournament twice. No team can claim to have mastered the art of winning in T20s at the international level. And this is India's chance to rewrite the script -- they do go in as favourites, but much will depend on how they handle the pressure of expectations and favourites tag.

India's fixtures:

Tuesday, 15 March: v New Zealand, VCA Stadium, Nagpur
Saturday, 19 March: v Pakistan, Eden Gardens, Kolkata
Wednesday, 23 March: v Bangladesh, M Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru
Sunday, 27 March: v Australia, PCA Stadium, Mohali

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