India look to improve finals record
Something for the trivia buffs to start. When was the last time India won a multi-team ODI tournament without a headline performance from Sachin Tendulkar in the final? Answer: The Natwest Trophy in 2002, when Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh, barely out of their teenage years, announced themselves as the next big things in Indian batting.
On Thursday, against a Sri Lankan team whose only chink seems to be a lack of batting depth, but whose top five have helped themselves to plenty of runs over the past week, India will also be seeking to improve an appalling recent ODI record in non-bilateral series.
MS Dhoni played down India's performance in finals, saying there was no extra "big-match" pressure on his side. "We won the last time we played a final in Sri Lanka," he said. "Somehow we have not been able to win [on other occasions], maybe the performance isn't good, or whatever the reason, but I don't think there's too much of pressure on you just because it's a final."
After six barren years following that famous victory at Lord's, things appear to have perked up under the leadership of MS Dhoni, with the team winning the final CB series in Australia and then capturing the Compaq Cup in Sri Lanka last year. However, those victories were all inspired by masterly innings from Tendulkar, who is missing from the squad, as are two other match-winning batsmen, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj. That only adds to the burden on India's bowling attack, which hasn't done anything this tournament to fill Sri Lanka's batting with dread.
Zaheer Khan has had expensive first spells before recovering, Praveen Kumar's bowling has been mostly amiable and questions still swirl about Ashish Nehra's fitness. The spinners have generally had a better time, with Harbhajan Singh having a good game against Pakistan and Ravindra Jadeja being his steady, economical self.
"I am quite happy with the bowling performance," MS Dhoni said after the loss to Sri Lanka on Tuesday. "We have bowled mostly in the afternoon session when there was not much help for the bowlers. They have done well in patches, but it will really feel good if you can win some games after scoring 230 or 240. You cannot always expect your batsman to score 280 or 300, it's good if it happens so, but our strength is batting."
The lack of a quality allrounder is also hampering the Indian side. Jadeja is ostensibly filling that slot, but hasn't inspired confidence with the bat during the Asia Cup, which means India are essentially playing five specialist bowlers. Dhoni backed Jadeja to perform, saying that he had the potential to be a consistent allrounder.
"Ravindra Jadeja has done well in the IPL and domestic games. Now he has got fair amount of chances in international level also and we are hoping that he clicks," Dhoni said. "He has done well in the bowling department, now we hope that he stands out with his batting performance because he is the kind of guy who can give you stability at No. 6 or 7. There are not many players that you can spot right now [as alternatives]."
Success for India, though, will likely be based on their batting might. Gautam Gambhir and Dhoni have lent steel to the side, but youngsters like Virat Kohli, who are likely to be squeezed out of the XI when Tendulkar & Co return, haven't grabbed the opportunities they've been provided in Sri Lanka.
Kaif and Yuvraj made themselves indispensable to India's 2003 World Cup plans with their audacious innings eight months before the marquee tournament in South Africa. If one of Kohli, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma can turn in a similar starring role against a well-oiled Sri Lankan unit, it will push them ahead in the tussle for a permanent middle-order slot. And it will improve India's abysmal record in tournament finals as well.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo