Spin could be India's weapon
This tournament doesn't have a pause and that's the beauty of it. Only five days have passed, and it feels dizzy, and I mean that in the positive sense. The pitches have been interesting; after South Africa's unexpected loss and England's unexpected win, both matches involving Sri Lanka, there are no clear favourites any more.
And the West Indians, so derided before the tournament, have hardly been pushovers. Incredibly, with a little luck, they could have even been heading their group. And, even more incredibly, there remains a possibility - if only theoretical - of them making it through to the semi-finals still. For that this needs to happen: India must thrash Australia tomorrow, Pakistan must then beat Australia and top the group; and West Indies must beat India by a huge margin in the final group match.
But for any of this to happen of course, India have to turn up tomorrow. They came to the tournament as the number one team in the rankings - though that's not always synonymous with the best team - and, after only one game, they are one game away from elimination. It's a fate that has befallen them in two out three previous ICC events, yet they have a frighteningly simple task ahead of them: keep winning.
Their rivals are the defending champions. A lot has changed since Australia won the Champions Trophy in 2006, and then the World Cup in 2007, but they will bring to this match an 8-1 winning record since the start of this season, and a desire to set a couple of things straight against a team with which they have shared an interesting and piquant recent history. It was Dhoni's team that precipitated Australia's one-day slide by blanking them out of the tri-series final in 2008.
But those were different times. Australia were slipping from their lofty perch and India, perky, young, energetic and confident, were on the upswing. Ishant Sharma was sensational, RP Singh was swinging it, and Praveen Kumar was the surprising bowling hero. And of course Sachin Tendulkar was batting like a champion.
He still is. But it was the pace bowlers who won India the series then, and today they present Dhoni his biggest worry. Dhoni is a remarkably candid man. Yesterday, he minced no words in admitting that his bowlers had let the team down, today, he went a step further by conceding that they were low on confidence. Consquently, India have been compelled to abandon their preferred formula and reinforce their bowling at the cost of their batting. It is a risk, but one worth taking. In fact, they are one match late.
It is easy to understand why Dhoni has been wary of going down that path. None of his quick men can bat, and No. 8 is a spot too high for Harbhajan. Australia recovered from 171 for 7 to 275 through Mitchell Johnson and Brett Lee yesterday. Once Rahul Dravid was seventh out against Pakistan, India added ten. Admittedly, the quality of bowling and match situations were different but with Amit Mishra, who is certain to come in tomorrow, the tail will be lengthened. Yet Mishra, a legspinner in the classical mould and was a surprising success in the IPL, could hold the key.
As a one-day side, Australia are just about in the same place as India were in 2008. Ricky Ponting is batting majestically; Lee has recovered his zest and fitness, Johnson has grown as a bowler, and in Callum Ferguson, they have found a batsman with poise and skill and in Tim Paine, a young wicketkeeper batsman of unpredictable, and to the Indians, unknown quantity.
But if this side has a known weakness, it is against spin. The familiar theme in most of their one-day defeats this year has been a mid-innings struggle against spin. From Johan Botha to Shahid Afridi to Graeme Swann, they have all prospered against the Australian middle order. Expectedly Michael Clarke, who is unlikely to play tomorrow, has been their most prolific batsman against the spinners, but his runs have come at 4.11 per over; James Hopes and Brad Haddin, their two big strikers have scored at less than 4.00 and no batsman managed more than 5.00. Theoretically, Mishra and Harbhajan Singh, if he can find his mojo, could keep them under 80 runs off their 20 overs. Dhoni will miss the handy fillers from Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag, but expect Suresh Raina to wheel away a few.
But of course, stats, history and theories are often of little use. If anything, this tournament has made rubbish of conventional wisdom almost every day. Common sense suggests Australia should win. India go in to the match low on talent and confidence, and the knowledge that they can not afford to blink. What they need to find is some inspiration and a couple of saviours.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo