India look to put cricket ahead of distractions
OverviewIndia hardly ever play big events without huge pressure of expectation on them. This Champions Trophy was to be different. The selectors had picked a young team, mostly based on performance and not past or promise. Surely this inexperienced team - picked with World Cup 2015 in mind - would go with less expectation, and thus less pressure? Surely, for once, India wouldn't be the focus of everything? We had another think coming. India will once again be the center of attention, this time unwanted and unfortunate. Wherever they go they will be asked questions, and they will have to show up for press conferences because this is an ICC event.
However, the cricket can't come soon enough. If the fan is indeed waiting to be reassured by MS Dhoni and his team, Dhoni's silence clearly says the reassurance will come the way they know best to give it: through playing cricket. It is difficult to imagine what state of mind the players are in, but it is fair to assume it is not easy. It is not going to be easy to play cricket, but the cricket field might be the place where they can possibly let go of the caginess, the unease, and whatever other emotions they have gone through, if at all.
This is not an easy tournament at the best of times. There are no looseners in the eight-team, two-group Champions Trophy format. You have to be better than at least two teams in your group of four to make it to the semi-final. It's a tricky format. And India have traditionally struggled to come terms with international cricket immediately after the IPL. It is a difficult time and a difficult tournament, but it is not unimaginable that the players are itching to go out and play.
Key playerIf ever there was a time for a captain to make a statement on the field, this might be it for MS Dhoni. Off the field he has already shown helplessness when asked to speak about the controversies. The man under most pressure to quit his job, N Srinivasan, is also the man who saved Dhoni's captaincy last year, and also the managing director of the company Dhoni is a vice-president of, which is also the company that owns the IPL team that Dhoni captains.
It is possible that all this might not be a distraction for Dhoni at all. If it is a distraction, it is likely that Dhoni won't be affected once on the field. Once he does manage to put these things behind, Dhoni will have to make important decisions. He will have to sort out the opening combination first: India have used three different combinations in their last eight matches, and have dropped two of those openers. Shikhar Dhawan and M Vijay are the specialists now, and Rohit Sharma and Dinesh Karthik have opened before.
Then Dhoni has to decide between an allrounder and a specialist batsman for No. 7. And if he does pick the allrounder, he has to choose between Irfan Pathan, more suited to the conditions, and Ravindra Jadeja, the form man. And if he does pick Irfan, Dhoni will be left with two bowlers - Bhuvneshwar Kumar being the other - whom he will want to bowl out with the new ball. Then as a batsman, Dhoni will have to be the leader of the middle order in Yuvraj Singh's absence.
Surprise packageShikhar Dhawan surprised the daylights out of not only Australia but observers in India on Test debut when he waltzed his way to 187. He has had an injury since then, recovered, made a decent comeback in the IPL, and will be crucial to India's plans. He is also one of the three left-hand batsmen in the squad.
WeaknessAs always, the bowling. India's most exciting bowling prospect on this tour, Umesh Yadav, is a man with 51 international wickets, who is coming back from a stress reaction of the back. That says all you need to know about India's biggest weakness in international cricket.
Champions Trophy historyIndia's Champions Trophy high came in 2002 in Sri Lanka, when they shared the trophy with the hosts after both attempts at having a completed final were washed out. India also made it to the final in 2000 in Kenya, but lost to New Zealand. There hasn't been much to declare otherwise.
The last Champions Trophy was played in South Africa, in 2009. India had panicked so much by then they recalled Rahul Dravid two years after he had last played an ODI. It didn't help, though, and India lost the big first match to Pakistan. When their second match was washed out, their fate was left in the hands of other teams, and they didn't give India any favours.
Recent formIndia's involvement in ODI cricket - keeping in with the trends worldwide - has gone down immensely. Since they finished third in the tri-series in Australia early last year, they have been involved in only four ODI events. The Asia Cup was a disaster, they then won against their bilateral punching bag Sri Lanka before losing to Pakistan and winning against England at home. Their three shoo-in openers are now not even part of the squad, the bowling has looked weak as ever, and they have entered the rebuilding phase, which they should have entered soon after the World Cup triumph in 2011.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo