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Friday, October 29, 2021

Backing the Blues

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Can Team India redeem cricket as a sport by winning the CWC, despite all odds?

It is a Cricket World Cup like no other! Not only are the Indians defending champions of cricket’s biggest prize, but the tournament comes at the back of a long and painful international season for India. With series losses in South Africa and New Zealand at the start of 2014 (and these included losses in both Tests and ODIs), a disastrous English campaign in the summer partly remedied by a ODI series win and finally another disappointment in Australia, Indian cricket is now faced with far too many questions, with very few answers in the bag. The bowling is in disarray, the batting is heavily dependent on a few individual stars, and captaincy continues to be an issue. Off the field, the fans faith is at its lowest as the BCCI continues to be ensconsed in the throes of scandals and unpleasantness. There are more cases than ever before, and cricket has never had it as bad since the match fixing scandal first erupted at the turn of the century in 2000

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Much at stake

Interestingly however, a World Cup win can change all that. With the final of the tournament due just days before the IPL is about to start on home soil, a win can once again catapult cricket to the forefront of the nation’s imagination. If he manages to lead India to victory, mighty difficult to say the least, MS Dhoni will have redeemed all of his lost pride and will have elevated his brand to a never before reached level. Most importantly, cricket will have warded off the challenge it now stands to face from rivals like football, tennis and kabaddi, for a share in the television viewership pie.

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For the BCCI too, it will come as a huge sigh of relief. Struggling to attract sponsors for India’s domestic assignments, the rate for team India’s title sponsorship has fallen sharply. Rates for domestic series sponsorship are down by close to 40% and are expected to slide further, unless something dramatic happens to give it a much needed boost. The World Cup win can be exactly that, making the stakes far higher than they have ever been on the eve of cricket’s biggest extravaganza.

A historic win.

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2011, it must be acknowledged, was also huge. India was playing the cup on home soil after a hiatus of 15 years, and Sachin Tendulkar was participating in his last World Cup as a player. A loss would mean cricket’s greatest star would have to retire without the biggest prize in his repertoire. It was an emotional occasion with most of the players dedicating the triumph to sachin.

Interestingly, however, the material stakes weren’t as high. India was still the number one team in Test cricket, had just concluded a very good away series in South Africa where they had managed to draw the three Test series one apiece, and the IPL was at its very best. No corruption scandal had yet impacted the cash rich league and the BCCI wasn’t mired in half the number of court cases as now. The win in Mumbai on 2 April, 2011 only helped cricket’s stocks go further higher and we witnessed an unprecedented fan frenzy in the post World Cup context. The fact that India beat Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the final week of the competition added to the excitement, and television ratings shot through the roof with the India-Pakistan match garnering a rating of 35.2. Cricket was at an all time high.

Thereafter, and within a matter of months, the stocks came crashing down in a manner that no one could have anticipated. To invoke the CLR James tagline, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ Dhoni’s India sank to an abominable 0-4 Test series loss in England in the summer of 2011 and also ended up losing the ODI series 0-5, losing the number one Test ranking in the process. Indian cricket has not recovered since.

Team India

Can the CWC 2015 reverse the trend? Can Dhoni, who has done the unthinkable on many occasions for India in the past, do it one more time? For example, no one had expected Dhoni to win the World T20 in 2007 or the Champions Trophy in England in 2013 but he did so on both occasions, against all odds.

However, as it is often said in cricket, a captain is as good as his team. In 2007, Dhoni had a team of young rookies led by the indomitable Yuvraj Singh. In 2011, he had Sachin, Sehwag, Gautam and Yuvraj at their best with Zaheer and Harbhajan leading the bowling. In 2013, the Indians exploited the English conditions beautifully to script a fairytale triumph in the Champions Trophy. The question is, does the 2015 WC squad have the necessary firepower for Dhoni to be able to dream of the unthinkable? Can the bowlers, pulverised by all opposition in the recent past, redeem themselves at the stage that matters the most?

If there’s ever a format where Dhoni is at his best, it is the 50-over format. And in Suresh Raina he has one of the best middle order players in the world. Having played together for close to a decade now, these two are at ease with each other when chasing a total. No score is big enough for them and they have perfected the art of pacing the innings to perfection. If Raina is the initial aggressor, Dhoni is the perfect finisher in the format he loves the most.

In fact, it wouldn’t be a far cry to suggest that MSD will be the world’s universal choice to hedge their bets on if a team needs 15 runs to win in the last over. Fans can inevitably expect to see the helicopter shot, the trademark back-to-thebowler drive, and a huge hit-over-midwicket. Before the bowling team can fathom, the match is nearly over. That’s Dhoni in limited overs cricket. Finally to Virat. Perhaps the best batsman in the world at the moment, he is the perfect number three to come out and chase a 300 plus score. Also, his record in Australia and New Zealand is phenomenal, making him one of the players to watch out for in the World Cup. If Virat plays to potential, India will win more often than not. It is as simple as that.

All said and done there is reason to be hopeful. And be upbeat. And dream. Come the end of March, Dhoni’s boys might well give Indian cricket, plagued by scandals and unexpected retirements and other reversals, a new lifeline. At least they have the potential and the ability. For the execution part we will have to wait for 30 days more.

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