The ten-nation ICC Men's Cricket World Cup is likely to be one of the most closely fought tournaments in the history of the competition. Each side will play the other at least once between 30 May and 14 July in England and it's fair to assume that the teams which will be most consistent will be the ones that will hope to advance to the final stages of the tournament.
If the current ICC ODI Team Rankings are any indication, India at the No 2 position are heavy favourites to lift the title and add to their previous victories in 1983 and 2011. The all-round abilities of the recently announced 15-man squad seems to reinforce the notion that this India side under the leadership of Virat Kohli will be the side to beat for any other team which has aspirations to win the tournament.
Whilst the selected India squad has match-winners in all facets of the game, some reservations have been expressed about the inclusion of their veteran ex-captain, MS Dhoni. To former England captain Nasser Hussain, concerns about the wicket-keeper-batsman’s suitability for the World Cup are irrational as the 37-year-old is a big tournament player and quite capable of rising to the occasion and taking his side home.
“MS Dhoni is hugely important for India's chances at the World Cup. There are certain cricketers around the world who rise to the occasion and are big-match players and Dhoni is one of them. The bigger the occasion and the more the pressure he is under, Dhoni is the one who seems to soak up that pressure and pace the innings brilliantly. Some have argued that his skills in 50-over cricket have been on the wane slightly but I'm not so sure about that. As we have seen recently, he still knows how to handle pressure situations and read the game-situation and when you are going into massive tournaments like the World Cup you want guys like MS Dhoni with you and there is no doubt that he's one of the greatest finishers there has ever been in the game of cricket.”
The name Virat Kohli in any Indian batting line-up is enough to send jitters down the spine of opposition bowlers. Holding the number one position in ICC’s Test and ODI ranking for batsmen, Kohli has also shown great leadership abilities which makes him a potent weapon in international cricket. His ability to lead the side from the front will be a huge plus for India in the upcoming World Cup, and as Nasser Hussain describes it, could well be the difference between victory and loss for India. He said, “Virat Kohli has become a run-machine. Whenever I check the score and if India are batting, he'll be 80 or so not out in a run-chase and then the next time I check the score soon after, he will be on 120 and leading India to a win. It is freakish the number of times this sort of thing happens. You'd have expected him to have gone through a lean patch by now, or for someone to work him out but it's just not happened. His hunger for runs, his drive, his fitness, his mental strength is such that he just continues to score big runs, one game after the other. He's such a competitor not only in match-situations but even in the warm-ups when the team is playing football. He's absolutely driven by being the best he can be and also by trying to make winning contributions for India. That is exactly why his statistics in run-chases are incredible because he is a winner who loves winning. He thrives on scoring runs and winning matches for India and is a phenomenal competitor.”
Whilst cricket authorities around the world fret over declining interest in cricket, it appears that the love for the game is alive and kicking in India. According to Hussain, it is no wonder that India is able to produce world-class players for whom playing in pressure situations is second-nature given the enthusiasm for the game at home, which is exactly the reason why India are considered favourites to win the upcoming World Cup.
“There are 6 or 7 teams who can win the World Cup and India are certainly amongst the 2 or 3 favourites. Any Indian cricketer will tell you that even before you put on the Indian shirt you are under immense pressure to perform because of the fact that there are so many other players who will perform and go ahead of them if they don't. When they play, everyone expects so much of them whether it's an IPL game, an international match or a domestic match for Mumbai or any other domestic team . The fact is that wherever the game is played in India, the players grow up with that sort of pressure and it becomes second-nature to them, so it becomes part and parcel of being an Indian cricketer to them. For Indian players, a World Cup game is no different from any other game because when you play for India you are under constant pressure and under the microscope. There are millions and millions of Indians that want you to do well and expect you to do well which is why Indian players seem to handle that pressure very well.”
For a side with a great record in ODIs and match-winners aplenty, it is indeed hard to find any areas of concerns going into a World Cup competition. Whilst the bowling for India has the ability to lay waste to any batting line-up and the openers can take the attack to the opposition bowlers, in Nasser Hussain’s view, the only chink in the Indian armour is in the area of the lower-order batting.
"Previously at World Cups there may have been question marks over the Indian seam-bowling but that is now an area where they have really strengthened in the last 2-3 years with Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar coming into the side. The only thing I would say is that there could be a weakness in India's lower-order batting. If you look at England's batting line-up they would have someone like Liam Plunkett coming in at number 10 and Adil Rashid at number 11 and sides nowadays bat all the way down. But in India's line-up, after Dhoni we have the likes of Bhuvneshwar and their spinners who don't bat that much. So maybe their depth in batting could be an area where they can't go quite as hard. However, it is also true that Kohli, Dhoni and Rohit Sharma are so prolific at the top that they don't worry too much about the depth in their batting. But maybe this could also explain why Dhoni doesn't go as hard early in his innings at the bowling because he's worried that he's left with the tail too early in the innings," said Hussain.
Pitches in England have traditionally been known to assist swing and seam bowling, sometimes leading to the misconception that spinners have no real role to play, especially in ODIs. For Nasser Hussain who knows local conditions well, variety in the bowling attack could well be the distinguishing factor for any side in the upcoming World Cup and it would appear that India are well-equipped in this aspect of the game.
“India's spinners will play a huge role at the World Cup. Don't be confused by talk that in England it will be all-seam. The pitches will be ICC prepared pitches and we have already had a very dry spring over here. The pitches will be good and there will be big scores as we have seen already in the domestic 50-over tournament. If your side has any kind of variation in the bowling line-up such as wrist-spin, it is the way to go. In white-ball cricket around the world you need a left-armer, a wrist-spinner and you need a bit of extra pace and generally India have all of those bases covered.”
It is indeed difficult to consider how any other teams will be able to mount a serious challenge to the supremacy of England and India who now hold the No 1 and 2 positions in ICC’s ODI rankings respectively. But Nasser Hussain sounds a note of warning for followers of both teams and feels that more than strength on paper, it will be how teams play on a particular day which will determine the final winner of the World Cup, “I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that it will be an India versus England final. Two years ago, at the Champions Trophy everyone was saying that, and we all know what happened there. In a one-off game in knockout cricket there are so many sides that can win the World Cup. It's all about handling big occasions and making sure that on the day you are absolutely spot on. On paper the best 2 sides are probably India, and England who will be playing at home and we know that the last 2 World Cups have been won by the home nation. However, make no mistake, there is no guarantee of victory unless you play well on the day."