India eye qualification lifeline
India have a head coach, a fielding coach, a bowling coach, and other support staff that includes an analyst, a trainer, a physio, and a masseur. Then there are 17 cricketers. Between them not one had bothered to check the playing conditions and inform the captain that India were still alive in the tournament - only just, but alive. After their third straight defeat in the triangular series - and third while conceding a bonus point to Australia - India's captain MS Dhoni said his side couldn't make it to the finals now because the margin of their losses was too big to make up for in the net-run-rate column.
This is not to jump at Dhoni's throat, but a side desperate to make the finals would know every last backdoor entry and try to break it open. This is clearly a side looking forward to going home. At least that way they can catch a break of three to four days before being packed off for the Asia Cup and the IPL. Dhoni himself - perhaps the man who physically endures the most in this side - had the runs during yesterday's game, and after it he hobbled out of the press conference.
To add to it there is Irfan Pathan, who might or might not experience trouble from his collision with Suresh Raina in the field. Zaheer Khan is already out with a calf injury, R Vinay Kumar has done his hamstring. The batting has been so abysmal the captain himself conceded the bowlers will have to keep sides down to 200 if they were to win in this current form.
Nobody likes losing, yet you can imagine the relief India must be feeling at the idea of home, away from the bouncing and seaming ball, away from the scrutiny, away from fans who line up at every training session expecting a better show, away from the pressure of that expectation even if for less than a week, away from the barracking, away from the losses, away from the same faces for close to three months, away from the media.
And then Dhoni is told his side is not out yet. That if they beat Sri Lanka by a bonus point, and Australia then beat Sri Lanka, India will play the final week of the Australian summer. Oh, the torture. Coming to terms with failure is hard enough, realising you have done it too soon is worse. Dhoni was expectedly sheepish, but then he smiled. He said it was good to know this was the case. In a second he was crushed too, possibly thinking of how hard it will be to attain a bonus point when he is struggling to find four fit bowlers.
"I am quite happy to hear that," Dhoni said of the playing conditions. "Gives us another chance."
A moment later he said, "That would be saying I am very optimistic, seeing that we have not consistently done well with the bat, which means whatever the opposition scores we will have to score in 40 overs, which will be a very difficult task, but I am happy that at least there is a chance subject to some other game, but I would love to take it."
So it is down to one more evening now. An evening in the beautiful Hobart. The players can look at it as one last evening before riddance. Or they can look at it as one last evening where they can let themselves go, where they give it their all and hope for another week in Australia to show the country they are a better team than the one that turned up earlier. Arguably, though, to get themselves up for this last league game would have been much easier if they knew this was it, and there would be a break after the Australia tour. Here, on the other hand, if India make it to the final, they ensure they fly straight to Bangladesh.
They will also be looking back with regret at the Adelaide game against Sri Lanka, which they had almost wrapped up but could only just tie because of some nervous, reckless batting. Had they won it, they would have only needed to win the upcoming game and wait for the other result as opposed to winning this with a bonus point and then sitting back to await the outcome of Australia v Sri Lanka.
Some of the players will get one final chance to show why they should not be dropped from the squad that will be picked a day after the game. Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Virender Sehwag and Ravindra Jadeja find themselves on thin ice.
The bottom line won't change, though. The much-acclaimed batting line-up, more a behemoth on this tour, will have to either put on a total their bowlers can defend 80% of or chase in 40 overs whatever the bowlers have allowed. This is being asked of a group that has been bowled out in four of the seven games, thrice for less than 200.
India look every bit an ordinary side right now. It will take some extraordinariness to stay alive for three more days. It will be breathtaking if they manage to do it. A year or so ago, you wouldn't write India off because they had that intangible fight in them; now not many will be holding their breath.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo