It began in the most expected fashion. Favourites England thrashing South Africa by 104 runs, justifying their reputation as front-runners to lift the Cup. The one-sided affairs continued with West Indies making short work of Pakistan, Sri Lanka going down to New Zealand by 10 wickets and Afghanistan losing to Australia by seven wickets. The ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 was still warming up, it seemed.
But then, South Africa played Bangladesh and suddenly, the cricket World Cup had a mood swing. Mashrafe Mortaza and his company came out with flying colours, beating the Proteas by 21 runs, in the process registering their highest ODI score ever.
Next day, there was another surprise in the offing as Pakistan, who were bundled out for 105 runs in their opening match, smashed 348/8 against the same front-runners, England, on their way to first win, fulfilling the ritual of starting a tournament on a bad note, making everyone count them out and then arriving in style to shut them up.
Between these twists and turns, one team stayed away from all the action, courtesy the schedule. The team is India. Virat Kohli and Co begin their campaign on 5 June, a week after the commencement of the tournament, against South Africa and the anticipation for this match is very high, which presumably was ICC's objective.
Ahead of the game, Kohli's worry would be a little lessened with Kedar Jadhav having a net session on Tuesday and Vijay Shankar too back to full fitness. While the news of Dale Steyn being ruled out of the tournament was termed as 'bad' by Kohli, he would be somewhere relieved as well. India face a depleted South Africa on 5 June in their tournament opener and they would certainly start as favourites.
As the tournament begins for India, here are some of the concerns, or to say, areas which, if India works upon, can help them reach to the final, and maybe lift the trophy.
MS Dhoni's form in England
India's No 5, MS Dhoni, is a key to team's success in World Cup. He batted at No 5 in the World Cup final, 2011 and famously hit the winning runs for India. Kohli wants him at the same position throughout the tournament this year and he will have to play the role of the anchor and the aggressor in equal capacity. If Dhoni manages to do that on a consistent basis, India would take a sigh of relief at the mega event.
He is the one who will have the responsibility of holding the middle-order together. But Dhoni's average in England is a huge challenge for him to overcome. He averages 38.06 in England while playing against them in contrast to his overall average of 50.72. Clearly, the finisher does not feel at home there. MSD had a below-par outing in the three-match ODI series last year against England, scoring at a strike rate of less than 65. He did not have the best of Champions Trophy as well in 2017. However, between that and this Dhoni, there is a huge difference. This version of Dhoni looks slightly more hungry for runs. This Dhoni has no further pressure of carrying his form on to the next series with chances that this is his last outing. His stroke-making against Bangladesh in the warm-up suggested that he means business this time. And if that happens, India should be a happy side at the end of the World Cup. His role as a batsman is bigger than the previous two World Cups when he generally batted at No 6 or 7.
The No 4
The talk about India's No 4 ceases to go away. And why should it be? Yes, KL Rahul did score the century in the warm-up but we have been a witness to his inconsistency. Rahul either goes big or goes back home. There is Vijay Shankar, who beat Rishabh Pant to guarantee a place in the 15-member squad, and as per chief selector, is India's natural No 4. The fight will be between these two throughout the tournament to secure the place and the fact that this batting position is so performance-sensitive, we might see frequent No 4s for India, knowing Kohli likes changing and chopping.
So the question is, do these two have the capability to rise to the occasion when given a chance? Won't India's batting order be affected with this position consistently getting different ownerships throughout the tournament? Should Kohli trust one among them to go the long way, forgiving some failures on the way? The questions will begin to haunt India as the first ball against South Africa is bowled.
India's right-handed batsmen versus left-arm pace
India's batsmen have fallen prey to the likes of Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan, Trent Boult in the past two to three years. Who can forget the Champions Trophy 2017 final when Amir ripped apart the India top order. Out of the top 3, Rohit, especially, has an issue judging the path of the ball. Not to forget, he has already fallen to a left-arm pacer in the warm-ups, getting out plumb to Boult in the first practice game of the tournament.
Kohli too juggles with the ball that shapes away from him and when Amir, Boult and the likes run to him, there would be a little concern in his mind. Not to forget, there is one left-arm pacer in almost all squads. Australia have Mitchell Starc, Pakistan have two in Amir and Shaheen Afridi, Sri Lanka have Isuru Udana, who bowled well against Afghanistan, New Zealand have Boult, Bangladesh have Mustafizur Rahman, West Indies have Sheldon Cottrell. South Africa, too, have named Beuran Hendricks in their squad in place of outgoing Dale Steyn. He bowls left-arm medium. Faf would love to him against India but chances are less that he would play, considering he was named less than 24 hours ago. India sending back two net bowlers in Avesh Khan and Deepak Chahar home and asking left-arm pacer Khaleel Ahmed to stay is a testament to the fact that they see facing the left-arm pacers a concern.
Kohli's captaincy at big stage
Alright, count the number of big finals Kohli has played for India as captain? Can't figure it out? Just one, if this may help. That was also the Champions Trophy 2017 final, which India lost to Pakistan by 180 runs. Clearly, Kohli lacks the experience of captaining his team in the finals, which can be a huge factor. Between 2017 till this date, apart from the Champions Trophy final, Kohli has two chances to lead the team in finals in limited-overs cricket, once in Nidahas Trophy 2018 and then in Asia Cup the same year (50-over format), both of which Kohli skipped to take rest. Winning bilateral ODI series' and winning multi-nation tournaments are two different ballgames altogether. The nerves of a final as big as a World Cup would be testing and if India reaches that stage, it will all boil down to how the King performs with both bat and brains.