ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / News
Bangladesh v India, Group B, World Cup 2011, Mirpur
Dhoni plays down the pressure factor
February 18, 2011
On the morning of the final day of the Adelaide Test of the 2003-04 series, when a tricky chase lay between India and their second Test win on Australian soil, I arrived at the ground early, sneaked on to the field where the team was playing a game of volleyball, crept up to John Wright, the India coach whom I regarded as a friend, and whispered this question.
"So John, what's this volleyball thing about, a couple of hours before one of the most important days of Test cricket of their lives?"
Wright gave me the look of astonishment. His eyes narrowed as he considered his response. I can't reproduce his words here, but I had hardly expected the spray that came my way.
I bumped into him in the elevator a couple of days later, and he smiled. "I don't bother you when you are working, do I?" he said, saving me the bother of asking. "Sometimes, the best way to prepare for a big day is to take your mind off it."
I remembered this as I watched the Indian team kick around a football in the Shere Bangla stadium, where they will open their World Cup campaign against Bangladesh on Saturday. MS Dhoni had just emerged from the pre-match press conference, where he had to respond to the same question phrased in different words and in different languages: was his team feeling the pressure? "I would have told you the exact figure," he said at one point, "if I had a machine to measure the pressure."
Indian players hardly need to be reminded about what is expected off them. "What to do," Dhoni said in response to another question, "there is pressure if you win, there is pressure if you lose." But out there on the turf, playing a game of football before the serious business of nets, they were like eager boys showing off their skills without feeling the obligation to perform.
Bangladesh are hardly pushovers in one-day cricket, and certainly not in their own conditions when their bowlers are as good as any in the world. But India, massive favourites in this World Cup and on whom rest not only the hopes of their fans rest but also the commercial success of the tournament, are expected to win against a team that knocked them out of the last World Cup, leading the format of the tournament to be redesigned.
The warm-up matches have been done and won but India are among to few teams to start the tournament against an opposition that possesses the wherewithal to knock them over. There is a precedent of a team losing the first match and going on to win the World Cup, but losing to Bangladesh would bring back the memories and the questions that India wouldn't want to revisit.
"We haven't even thought about it," Dhoni said when asked whether the 2007 defeat was playing on their minds, "because we don't want to repeat what happened in 2007." Seven of those who featured in that match are likely to be in the playing XI tomorrow, and four of them will form the top order that malfunctioned in Trinidad. The biggest difference between then and now, Dhoni pointed out, is that "we are in a much better frame of mind."
If India have any worries it is over the form of their quick bowlers. Ashish Nehra, who has been India's most consistent bowler in the format and was expected to fire in yorkers during the batting Powerplay, has been both erratic and down on pace in the warm-up matches. Munaf Patel, who was impressive in South Africa, has looked easy fodder on flatter pitches. Zaheer Khan, who sat out the warm-up games but bowled in the nets today, is certain to play and is expected to carry the attack. Nehra will perhaps be pencilled in to the share the new ball, but the nature of the pitch here makes two specialist spinners a real possibility.
"It's certainly an option we will consider," Dhoni said. Piyush Chawla was a rank outsider before the squad was selected but lends variety, can bat a bit and is a better fielder, all of which gives him a better chance of making the XI ahead of R Ashwin.
An equally big decision would be over the sixth batsman. By no means was Yusuf Pathan a certain starter before the one-dayers in South Africa but he will be impossible to leave out after his near match-winning hundred in Cape Town and his offspin lends a handy four-over option too.
But it's Virat Kohli's form that provides Dhoni with his happiest headache. He was India's most impressive batsman in difficult conditions in South Africa, but he would come in at the expense of Suresh Raina, who has been a fixture in the ODI squad and a vital part of Dhoni's strategy of consuming the fifth bowler's quota.
Whatever combination they pick, though, India's strategy will be based on a simple plan. Give their bowlers plenty to defend if they bat first. Or expect to chase down big totals. They bat big and they bat deep, and for the first time in a long time, they have all their best players to choose from. The countdown for the cup that counts begins tomorrow.