It's finally time again for teams from all around the globe to head into the world's biggest cricketing extravaganza - the World Cup - a tournament which evokes excitement and anxiety in equal measure.
As India prepare to fly to the UK for the mega event, looking to regain the trophy, captain Virat Kohli has stressed that handling pressure will be the key to having a successful tournament, a theme the Indian captain kept stressing on throughout the final press conference on Indian soil.
India leave for the UK on 22 May and will play two practice games, against New Zealand and Bangladesh, before opening their campaign against South Africa on 5 June. A decent few days before the first match would help get rid of early anxiety according to Kohli.
"It's always good to go to any place in advance," Kohli said in the pre-departure press conference, adding, "it does get rid of all the nerves you have as a side going into a tournament like World Cup. And that's the most important thing I guess because (with) white ball cricket, playing in England, playing an ICC tournament, the conditions are not that different or that difficult I would say compared to Test cricket. So, handling pressure is the most important thing in the World Cup and not necessarily the conditions. So from that point of view, it will be very helpful."
Apart from handling the pressure, another crucial factor Kohli pointed out was the importance of gaining momentum before opponents and maintaining that intensity. Taking the foot off the paddle won't be an option after entering the field.
"Everyone has to be at their best and gain intensity from the first match onwards and you don't have any room for complacency and that is why it is the World Cup, that's why it's the most important tournament in the World and we expect that kind of pressure from the first second of stepping onto the field," the Indian captain asserted.
"We are not even going to let ourselves think that maybe the first week onwards we'll get into it. No, you have to arrive on the day match ready, absolutely 100 percent match intensity, start from there and start building from there. This the challenge. If you look at all the top-class clubs in the world, for example, in football. They maintain their intensity for three-four months in a Premier League or in the La Liga. So, why not, if we get on a role and maintain our consistency, we should be able to do it for the length of the tournament," he added.
It's a World Cup where every team plays every team and the top four make it to the semi-finals. It's for the first time since the 1992 World Cup that this format is adopted. With strong teams competing against each other, the difficulty level has no doubt increased and this is where Kohli feels the teams will need to adapt quickly.
"Personally I think it's one of the most challenging World Cups of all the three that I have been a part of because of the format and looking at the strengths of all the sides as well," the Indian captain said.
"If you look at Afghanistan from 2015 to now, they are a completely different side and any team can upset anyone on their day if they have their day going. That's one thing that we have in mind. So as I said, focus will be to play the best cricket we can play and if we live up to our skillsets and standards that we've set, we will probably be on the right side of the result more often. So, that is going to be the key, every game you have to play to the best of your potential because it's not a group stage anymore, it's just playing everyone once and it's a great thing to have for any team. It's going to be a different challenge and something which every team will have to adapt very quickly too," he added.
Along with that difficulty there comes the added factor of burn out as well.
"Yes, it's going to be challenging but look the good thing is every game has a decent gap between each other, so from that point of view, I don't think the players will be burnt out even if we have hectic games or intense games immediately. We will always have time together to regroup and work on the next one. So the best thing is that we have four tough games straight up and that will just the tone nicely for us," said Kohli.
With the Indian Premier League serving as the prelude to the World Cup, there was always a chance of fatigue creeping in post the six-week league and also the mental aspect playing a key role going into the World Cup. Some players such as Vijay Shankar, Kedar Jadhav, Kuldeep Yadav didn't have the best of time in the IPL and will be playing in their first World Cup. Kuldeep, especially, had a tough time in the IPL and was even pictured in tears during the match against Royal Challengers Bangalore at the Eden Gardens in the group stage after being taken to the cleaners and was later dropped from the team. Jadhav and Shankar too didn't have a good time with the bat.
However, Kohli wasn't too much concerned about the mental space of the players heading into the World Cup.
"In hindsight, if you look at it, someone like Kuldeep who has had so much success, it's important to see things where things don't go your way also and we are glad that it happened during the IPL rather than happening during the World Cup. So he has time to reflect and correct things and come into the World Cup even stronger. We know the kind of skill set he possesses along with Chahal and they are really the two pillars of our bowling line-up. Kedar also, we understand the kind of pitches they got playing at home so we were not too worried looking at Kedar, he was looking in good space, yes, he couldn't get runs, T20 is such a format where if you don't get a few you can go on like that for a few games," Kohli said.
"So, we are not worried about anyone's headspace, everyone's very confident, they are enjoying their cricket and that's about the only thing you require from them. Playing their first World Cup, look a team that does well in the World Cup is the one that can handle pressure well as I said. And secondly, try and be as normal as possible, looking at the magnitude of those games, the team that stays more focused and balanced is the team that goes a long way in the tournament. So our focus will be that," he added.
With the format change, the workload of the bowlers is set to increase. But Kohli said that the bowlers had trained themselves beforehand to be ready for the tournament.
"All the bowlers that are in the squad, even during the IPL, they were preparing themselves to be in the zone of playing 50 over cricket. And if you saw all the guys bowling, no one looked tired or fatigued after bowling four overs. They were very fresh. So the mindset or the ultimate goal at the back of their minds was always to be fit for the 50 over format and not necessarily let the fitness come down and that was communicated before the IPL started," said Kohli.
The conditions and pitches in England have changed drastically over the years. The recently concluded England vs Pakistan series saw the 340-mark crossed on seven occasions with England chasing down two of those quite comfortably. Going by the trend in the last few years, Kohli feels that it's going to be a high scoring World Cup but the pressure factor could again play a role.
"In the ICC tournaments, the pitches are going to be very good. It's summer in the UK so, the conditions are going to be nice as well. So we expect high scoring games but look a bilateral series compared to a World Cup is very different so you will see a lot of...I won't say low scoring games but 260-270 kind of games, teams getting those totals and defending them successfully because of the pressure factor. So we expect all kinds of scenarios in the World Cup but yes, there will be quite a few high scoring games looking at the conditions."
Kohli also asserted that they won't be preparing for the clash against arch-rivals Pakistan differently.
"You have to play the World Cup according to your team's ability. You can't prepare for one team separately. There are many strong teams in the World but if we start thinking about different teams differently then we won't be able to focus on our campaign. Our focus is just to maintain the quality of our cricket and take the intensity in every match no matter what opposition, it doesn't make a difference to us."
With a 'very balanced and strong side', the Indian captain feels that the only expectation from the World Cup is to play good cricket.
"The only expectation we have is to play really good cricket and that's been our focus and that's where the results have followed in the last two-three years," Kohli said. "So we feel we go into the World Cup very balanced and very strong as a side. You saw in the IPL as well, all the players that are in the squad were in great form and playing really well. I think from that point of view, we expect ourselves to play the best cricket we can every game and that's about the only focus we will have and that will mean we will have to focus on the process also to be able to do that. So that is the only expectation everyone has from the team."