South Asia

Can India win the cricket World Cup?

Indian cricket team playing football
Image caption Fitness is an area in which the Indian team looks less than infallible

How India deals with the three 'F's - form, fitness and focus - is crucial when assessing their hopes of winning the cricket World Cup, says leading Indian sportswriter Suresh Menon.

Form is the least of India's worries. In the 12 months before the third one-dayer in South Africa, India won 15 of their 24 matches.

To maintain focus over 46 days of the tournament itself will be difficult while playing at home under the pressure of expectation.

That is especially the case since India won the tag of favourites - so freely pinned on the team by a jingoistic media on the past four occasions.

But it would seem that their rating is well-earned now.

Bowling strengths

Much will depend on how India rotates their players.

Fitness is the biggest worry. That, and a fourth 'F', which is related to fitness, fielding.

Only two players - Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina - are anywhere near international standards.

Skipper Dhoni - aware that you cannot hide seven players in the field - will be hoping that somehow all catches are taken, runs saved and balls whipped back from the outfield to claim run-outs.

Unlike teams from Australia, South Africa, England, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka which, whatever their batting or bowling strengths, maintain a high level of fielding, India have seldom worked hard enough on this crucial aspect of the shorter game.

It is seen as enough if you are adequate. The best fielders have been safe rather than spectacular. And even Raina and Kohli do not guarantee a high percentage of direct hits - often the difference between a run-out and a missed opportunity.

Ones and twos

Part of the reason is the mindset of the Indian player. Proficiency in one of the three skills of the game is seen as being sufficient to carry any shortcomings in the other two.

Image caption The emphasis needs to be on retaining focus as well as fitness

Zaheer Khan might be an important bowler, but his fielding, and that of his medium pace colleagues, is a nightmare.

Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar are downright embarrassments in the field. Yuvraj Singh, who began his career as an outstanding all-round fielder, is today a shadow of that self.

As the competition gets hotter in the World Cup, matches will be decided by a smart move in the field - a run-out against the run of play or an unexpected catch.

And unless such opportunities go to the couple of reliable Indian fielders, the hosts are likely to make a mess of them.

In the Johannesburg one-dayer which India won, they allowed 160 deliveries to go scoreless.

That is a huge number. Australia won the 1987 World Cup in India by consciously focusing on the singles and minimising the number of dot balls.

It was a strategy worked out by their coach Bob Simpson and it is one that has worked ever since.

With teams running so many singles and twos, the focus will be on attacking fielding, the quick pick-up and throw, the direct hit.

Indian batsmen will have to consistently score 30 or 40 runs more than the par score to make up for the inefficiency of their fielding.

The right team?

And even that might not be enough. Poor fielding puts pressure on both the batting and the bowling.

Image caption As the competition hots up, matches will be decided by a smart move in the field

Have India chosen the right team? With 12 of the players picking themselves, the only debates were philosophical ones: should a second wicket keeper be chosen?

And once it was decided - good decision this, considering that the West Indies, South Africa and England are all in India's half - that a leg spinner was necessary, the only opening was for a 15th player.

A leg spinner was duly chosen, a wicket keeper was duly ignored, thus opening up two slots.

A case can be made for S Sreesanth over Munaf Musa Patel, and the extra spinner (Ravichandran Ashwin) being a luxury, but these are not major issues.

Fitness will be a worry at every stage, and rather than go by the medium pacer versus spinner argument, the selectors merely picked the better bowler.

The World Cup will get into its stride only on 23 March, when the quarter-final rounds begin.

Not for the first time, everything that happens in the first month of the tournament is likely to be pretty useless.

India can afford to lose three matches and still make the grade.

Hence the overwhelming importance of retaining focus as well as maintaining fitness.

The average age of 28 suggests a mix of experience and youth, but the key performers are in their 30s and will need to be handled with care.

Yet one of them could stamp his name on the World Cup.

This might be India's last chance if you believe that the 50-over version of the game itself is in danger of going the way of the mammoth and the dodo.

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