To lift World T20 title, India need azaadi from non-performing openers and crippled middle-order
Dhoni has the option of opening with Rahane or bolstering the middle order with Pandey, even considering both the options. It might just be the azaadi moment of 2016.
To win the T20 World Cup, the Indian team needs azaadi: From non-performing openers, from poor starts, from Suresh Raina at No 4, from Yuvraj Singh who is now a pale shadow of his former iconic self and from a middle-order that dumps all its scoring burden on Virat Kohli.
On TV, in commercials, MS Dhoni is fond of saying, Zidd karo, duniya badlo. But ironically, he has persisted with the same playing XI for reasons only a psychoanalyst can explain.
Now, he may be forced to take a decision.
On Sunday, while batting against Australia in Mohali, Yuvraj Singh twisted his ankle. He is now an unlikely starter in the semi-final against West Indies.
Dhoni should not mind.
In Mohali on Sunday, we saw the great Indian hope trick. The moment when an entire country begins believing the World Cup is about to return home.
Hope, the Wachowaski Brothers wrote in The Matrix, is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength and greatest weakness.
Dhoni has got to be careful. The foundation of this fresh outbreak of hope is just one batsman: Virat Kohli. Imagine for a moment the run-chase against Australia and Pakistan without Kohli. What do we get?
Two openers sliding off their shikhar. The One who is failing consistently. No-hit Sharma, who starts lazily, then strikes a few straight to fielders, gets frustrated and in a bid to break the shackles, hits and gets out.
In four matches, Rohit Sharma has scored 45 runs at an average of 11.25, Dhawan's 43 runs have come at an average of 10.75. Their highest partnership has been 42 against Bangladesh. In other games they have scored 5, 14 and 23.
I am willing to bet Ravichandran Ashwin can perform better if pushed up the order, not that he should.
Suresh Raina? For some inexplicable reason, he has treated both spinners and pace bowlers with equal fear, lobbing back catches to balls that should have been hit for boundaries.
His average of 10.25 and 41 runs can be easily bettered by Harbhajan Singh, who also has the advantage of being a much better bowler.
Where is the Dhoni of 2011? That year, he took a decision that perhaps saved India from a likely exit against Australia in the quarter-final.
In the group stages, Dhoni persisted with Yusuf Pathan as the team's sixth batsman ahead of Raina. But, Pathan had a terrible World Cup; getting out cheaply, failing regularly in power plays and putting India under pressure with lofted shots immaculately aimed at the cupped palms of fielders.
So, against Australia, in a knock-out game, Dhoni dumped Pathan and inducted Raina. In case you have forgotten, Raina saw India out of woods in that match, stitching a partnership with Yuvraj, hitting Brett Lee for a six that changed the destiny of the World Cup. Pathan, if his past was an indication, would have led to India's demise with a silly shot.
Anecdotal evidence shows Dhoni is a great believer in the adage: form is temporary, class is permanent. It is evident in his refusal to chuck out players with proven pedigree in spite of persistent failures.
But, sometimes opportunity comes in the form of necessity.
In the 2007 World T20 final against Pakistan, forced by Virender Sehwag's injury, Dhoni had gambled by not only including Pathan, a debutant, in the team but also by making him open the innings. Though Pathan didn't last long, he stunned Pakistan by hitting a six off the first ball and launching a fierce attack on pacers.
Choices dictated by circumstances can, of course, backfire. In the 1987 ODI World Cup semi-final, India were forced to play wicketkeeper Chandrakant Pandit as a batsman to replace Dilip Vengsarkar, who was ruled out due to food poisoning. Pandit got out LBW to a full-toss at a crucial stage, costing India the game.
Nobody can predict if Ajinkya Rahane and Manish Pandey can help India win the World T20 because of their serendipitous inclusion in the team as replacements for Yuvraj and other out-of-form Indian batsman.
But, now Dhoni has the option of opening with Rahane or bolstering the middle order with Pandey, even considering both the options.
It might just be the azaadi moment of 2016.
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