From beat-up hatchback to purring sedan
The last time India and MS Dhoni were in Hamilton, there came a declaration from Mount Doom. After failing to defend 278 in the fourth ODI, and handing the ODI series to New Zealand, Dhoni said India were not sure about their fast-bowling combination, with less than a year to go for the World Cup. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Varun Aaron and Stuart Binny were the seamers at the time. Woe was India then, but now they find themselves in a place, to quote U2, that has to be believed to be seen.
One mystery from this World Cup - other than what the words of its tune Bob's Beat really mean - is the manner in which India's strike bowlers have found their groove, after many miserable weeks traipsing around Australia in Tests and the tri-series merely absorbing punches rather than dishing them out.
The quick bowlers have gone from a beat-up, second-hand hatchback to a smoothly purring first-rate sedan. The time to go all Rolls Royce has not yet arrived just yet, but the their accuracy and control have given India the sharpness it needed in this competition and confidence going into the white-knuckled knockout end.
With two group matches left and a top spot likely, Mohit Sharma tried to keep the hosannas down, saying the bowlers were aware they have not really been under pressure. Particularly the kind of end-overs, madcap-runrates, death-bowling brain-scrambler that the Indians were known to melt under going into the tournament. India have had to defend totals of 300 and 307 in the first two matches and have restricted the far-from-formidable batting line-ups of the UAE and West Indies to 102 and 182. And they have bowled out every team.
"There's a lot more good work to be done, we must concentrate on what are our strengths, and try to do as well as we can." Mohit said. That is professional realism more than anodyne sound bite.
It is said Dhoni does not usually turn up at bowlers' meetings, but asks for them come to him with a plan A and its back-up for every game day. Should neither work out during a game, it is up to him as captain to offer solutions and handle crises. In the World Cup, plans A & B have usually produced the promised results.
Mohit, who had joined the squad for the tri-series and then was a replacement for Ishant Sharma, talked of the bowlers banding together during their bruising - it is what bowlers tend to do - and the two weeks of the tri-series became a template for the bowling plans that were being lined up for the World Cup.
"We used to live together, four-five of us, we bowlers spent a lot of time with each other," Mohit said. "We could share experiences and talk through a lot of issues. This has helped our game a lot."
As Ishant waited for the injury to heal, which it never did, Mohit used the chance to learn about Australian conditions from his senior colleague. "When I came here, Ishant helped me a lot during practice - what would be the length at any particular venue for the new ball and the old ball. He's been here several times and it helped hugely."
As the first or second-change, picking up from early work by Shami and Umesh Yadav, Mohit's job was bowling tight, attacking the stumps and drying up the runs. "So that Ashwin and Jadeja can take advantage. It helps me hugely when Shami and Umesh are bowling well with the new ball because the batsmen are already under pressure and I have to bowl to my strength," Mohit said. "Which is what I have done for the last ten 12 years I have to keep doing that - line and length and bowl according to the wicket."
Yet what is this gradual but almost instant magic that gets a bowling unit whose reputation had been driven into the dirt to step up and hit their rhythm and direction all at the same time?
A similar spell had taken hold of India's bowling unit in 2003 World Cup as Javagal Srinath, then the senior of the three bowlers, said. There was an acceptance of specific roles and a mutual trust that brought an honesty about individual strengths and weaknesses. "We had an overall plan, it was our collective plan, it was something we had arrived at together, that's the most crucial part of this," Srinath said.
Early in his international career, as a non-striker Srinath had often heard Imran Khan giving his tyros Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis ball-by-ball coaching from mid-on, wise advice with free fruity epithets. In 2003, almost a decade more experienced than Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, it was Srinath who was often coached by Nehra from mid-on or mid-off. "He usually had 25 options for every ball. I listened. We had a great tournament."
The 2015 tournament has gone well too and Dhoni's ODI captaincy has played its part. "He is absolutely practical when it comes to an individual's own situation and his own situtation," Srinath said. "He won't go after a bowler for having a bad over, but get the man off and make the bowling changes when it is required, instead of wasting his energy beating the guy down. You don't have to do that."
During their long tour of Australia, the Indians had reached, "a time of distress when the team is under pressure," according to Srinath. It can lead to the formation of a core group of about four or five players who then take the lead. The pressure, in this case, came from the impending onset of the World Cup. It is a time when a player must "really dig deeper to know what you have and what could be realised. That's what World Cup does to you. To my mind, as an Indian player, you are under maximum stress during the World Cup," Srinath said.
Srinath called the spell from Shami and Umesh in Perth as "one of the finest bowling I have seen by an Indian pair. The way was ball was carrying was fantastic, speed, accuracy, with no time for anyone to play, the West Indians didn't look like they could handle it."
When their former bowling coach Joe Dawes had described India's bowlers as a "wolf pack" during a dire Test series in England, many jokes were made about sheep and lambs. At the World Cup, India's bowlers have bared their teeth.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo