India to start with four bowlers
India will begin their World Twenty20 campaign with a four-bowler combination but if that fails, MS Dhoni will include the fifth specialist bowler in the XI. India have had mixed results in their two warm-up games which they played with five bowlers, who defended 147 against Sri Lanka but conceded 186 in 19.1 overs to lose to Pakistan.
"Yes, bowling has always been a bit of a concern for us," Dhoni said after the optional practice session at the Nondescripts Cricket Club in Colombo. "Our bowling line-up is slightly weaker than our batting. But we have experienced bowlers who can do the needful and also the part-timers. We are looking to play with seven batsmen to start off the tournament which means the part-timers will have to do a really good job so that we can sustain with those seven batsmen. Otherwise, as the tournament progresses and [if] we still find that our bowling line-up is a bit too weak, we will have to go with six batters and five bowlers."
Four bowlers or five? Seven batsmen or six? This quandary always looms large before every limited-overs game India play, and is magnified even more on the eve of a global tournament. Various arguments are put forth in support of playing either four or five bowlers. None of them seem convincing enough, and all of them can be argued against.
The overriding perception, not without some evidence, is that India's bowling is so weak that even the fifth bowler will get hit, so you might as well play the extra batsman to score the runs the bowling is anyway going to leak. It is said that India's batting is so strong that the seventh batsman is going to be wasted, so you might as well play the fifth bowler, and, well, hope that he does better than the part-timers.
For the moment, Dhoni will hope his part-timers are able to get in some reasonable overs. Only one of them, Yuvraj Singh, bowled in the warm-up games, that too, just one over. Dhoni, though, was confident his attack would come good during the tournament, despite letting Pakistan achieve the target of 186 from a position of 91 for 5 in the 12th over.
"I think we are going good," Dhoni said. "Overall, it [the warm-up games] gave exposure to our bowlers as to what needs to be done. We have done well in death bowling also but we have not been very consistent with it. It is a bit of a worry. Fast bowlers are putting in a bit more effort to get into the groove. In this format if you have the variation you can go all out and still do well. I think the bowlers will shape up well and we will try different strategies and field placements to complement them."
Dhoni won the 2011 World Cup with the four-bowler strategy and there is no guessing which combination he prefers. "My ideal bowling combination will be three fast bowlers, one spinner and a few part-timers. It depends on the wicket, what kind of part-timers really suit the role and where you are playing. In India, with the slow wickets, the part-timers get into the game really well. It depends on how the wicket is behaving. Even in Sri Lanka, depending on different venues, the attacks will be very different."
Four bowlers will mean seven batsmen in the XI again, and Dhoni reasoned that the aggressiveness of the India line-up required the extra batsman. "It is not as if we are playing with seven batsmen right now. I think for the last 50-55 years we have played seven batsmen, if not more. I think there were instances where we played with six batsmen in 50-over games. There are quite a few of our batsmen who like to express themselves which means they may take the bowlers on right from the very first or second delivery. They would like to have the cushioning of that one more extra batsman. As I said it is something we would like to start off with, and if the batsmen keep putting on scores consistently then we may look at five specialist bowlers and a few part-timers."
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo