India v South Africa, Group B, World Cup 2011, Nagpur March 12, 2011

Can India peak at the right time?

Has India's World Cup campaign been a stuttering four-match performance or the prelude to what will be a thoughtfully timed assault on the tougher stages of the competition?
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What is to be made of India's World Cup so far? Is it about a stuttering four-match performance or rather the prelude to what will be a thoughtfully timed assault on the tougher stages of the competition? Is the very idea expectation or just an excuse?

Australia are the only other side who have not lost a game in this World Cup, so MS Dhoni's men are at least getting the results right. After raining runs in Dhaka, though, India's performance against England further dented their bowling's already dented reputation, and the batting was made to look all too mortal against the Associates. Results or not, the loudest favourite for the World Cup have been unable to do what champions are expected to - dominate chunks of play, send out a message, create an aura.

Many believe, and the idea is endorsed by Dhoni, that during this stage of a long event what India is looking for is not a full display of their talent but "momentum", "intensity", and "improvement". So that when the knock-out games arrive, the team can crank it up together. It is why India are playing like this through the tournament. They don't want to "peak too early", they are playing "within" themselves, they are saving it all up for the big matches against the big teams.

On Saturday in Nagpur, India's World Cup theory will have to come closer to establishing its truth versus South Africa, a big team, a big game. The outcome may determine little other than where the two teams may finish in their group but the quality of the cricket by both teams will reveal more than mere words about peaking can. Dhoni said on Friday that India's last two tough league games was the right build-up heading into the knockout stages of the competition. "You want to get a bit of momentum on your side - even though it's a fresh start every day, slowly the intensity will go up. You have to be at your best right from now on."

At every stage Dhoni has believed that India's best form is going to coincide with the second half of the Cup. At every stage he defends his men and explains how an unconvincing performance on the outside actually plays its part inside the larger plan. That for everything negative that may be written or hollered about over television, the team finds and feeds off a "positive".

That India's uneven batting performances may be of benefit because India have worked through all their options, chasing and defending, on flat tracks and slow, low turners. That average starts by the top three in three of the four games have meant the middle-order hitters have gotten a workout under pressure.

That running between wickets can be explained because India's best players rarely played together last year due to injuries. That the fielding wasn't going to get better, but at least they didn't drop catches. That squeezing the runs out in ODIs was equal to taking wickets because it lured batsmen into errors and increased the confidence of the bowlers.

It can be a reassuring argument because it keeps the team's confidence bubbling, observers respectfully daunted by the unforeseen, and the fans' dreams alive. History proves that peaking in long competitions may be unpredictable, but it happens far too often in sport to ignore: in the 1982 football World Cup, a luminous Brazil were knocked out and the Italians, who had squeaked through the league stage, won the title. Last year eventual champions Spain lost to Switzerland in their group game. In tennis' Grand Slam events, leading players often begin rusty and below par, raising their games in a fifth deciding set and then producing their best in the last few rounds. Cricket has Pakistan in 1992, Australia in 1999. Champions seem to instinctively know when to keep something in reserve and when to uncork it.

Yet to believe that the Indian team would not be looking for "form" or "touch" in the World Cup event is to believe that form does not exist. As the World Cup has trundled on, the Indians looking for form are many, but those visibly finding it on the field over the last few games, are few. Teams do not have a switch that can be thrown when it is time to peak. Dhoni said he judges his team's progress through a few signs: on-field performance and intensity. "Intensity really matters. It's about body language, the way with which you are fielding, the amount of effort you are putting into it, how are you are actually helping each other." He said he had seen the signs in his team. "Hopefully as the tournament progress we should be improving a lot over a period of time."

India has demonstrated both on-field performances and intensity only in patches: a few partnerships, Yuvraj Singh's presence, Yusuf Pathan's late assault over Ireland, and the sudden spurt in the field, only after Zaheer Khan removed Ian Bell and Andrew Strauss, to break England's methodical run-chase in Bangalore.

Identifying a cricket team heading towards a timely peak is hard, however. Athletes and swimmers can carefully calibrate how to do so through training and by using the stopwatch. Teams are totally different beasts, distinct individual skills interlocked in collective pursuit; cricket particularly so. For this complicated choreography to come together at the same time, for teams to peak, says Heath Matthews, "it boils down to team dynamic and the internal ethos."

As the World Cup has trundled on, the Indians looking for form are many, but those visibly finding it on the field over the last few games, are few. Teams do not have a switch that can be thrown when it is time to peak

The sports performance director at the Centre for Sports Medicine in Mumbai's KD Ambani Hospital, Matthews has worked with teams and athletes in both South Africa and India. In team sports, he says, it is the senior players who dictate the dynamic, through form and from it to morale and belief. In a long event like the World Cup, "when the seniors absorb the pressure and the expectation, it frees up the younger players, energises them, helps them make key plays that can affect matches."

It is what Zaheer's bowling could do to the rest of his tribe, how Yuvraj's form could work for Virat Kohli or that of the openers for Gautam Gambhir. For a team collective to peak, a number of central figures in the side, like its senior leaders, need to peak at the same time. Like Imran Khan did at the 1992 World Cup through leadership that unlocked Inzamam ul Haq, or the Ranatunga-De Silva duo in 1996, or Shane Warne in 1999. It may be what Dhoni is trying to do, by giving Piyush Chawla his support.

Matthews, a South African himself, says Saturday's match gives India a chance to "check the levels of their intensity". It works the same way on the other side of the fence too. South Africa also wants to hit the right tempo, captain Graeme Smith saying on Friday that a formula was yet to be found. "Everyone in sport is trying to work out what the right method is. Some teams seem to get it right - who knows what the reason is?"

The length of the World Cup has made finding the right answers even more difficult. The South Africans have spent more than a month in India and played only three games, a schedule Smith called, "weird". So far, he said, it had been, "a bit of a stop-start for us with the long breaks". The sudden clutch of South Africa's three matches over 11 days would actually help. "Hopefully we qualify well for the quarter-finals and then we are ready to go." He means take off.

What both India and South Africa want to control now is momentum, which will help them hit the peak when they most need to. In physics, momentum is mass times velocity. In this World Cup, it means the weight of performance that will set in motion a force that even the most immovable objects in cricket cannot stop. In this World Cup, only one team will ever have it, only one team will ever peak.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • RamanaY on March 15, 2011, 20:31 GMT

    I think its high time our bowlers get back to the draft board and reassess their dark areas.If possible and permitted they should get some guidance from may be Venkatesh Prasad or Robin Singh.We got to win this World Cup. May be for the match against Windies we should have Raina in place of Pathan(no offense) and Ashwin(home ground) in for Nehra.

  • Vinod on March 15, 2011, 4:27 GMT

    A true captain of the team leads from the front. He doesn't criticize his own men every time in the public. It is ridiculous that Dhoni who himself out of batting form ridiculing his team for poor fielding..after all he stood by this team..isn't it ?

    Indian team is also playing for the blunders of Greg Chappel, in who's regime India lost two most talented players by poor mismanagement..Irfan Pathan and Mohammad Kaif. It's pity that Indian bowling except Zaheer Khan looked less than ordinary. Not only in the World Cup but even prior to that Indian bowlers didn't look like taking wickets.. They don't know how to bowl yorkers..They don't know how to have variation in their bowling. When Malinga can bowl every ball in his spell on good length and try to york, our bowlers at best can toss the ball in the slot to be hit for a six..

    Dhoni should bat at number 4 and should lead the team... You can't be a responsible captain when you yourself has shown any character to lead from the front.

  • din2383 on March 14, 2011, 9:59 GMT

    many peole is criticising dhoni its okay i am not problem with it .india is democratic country they have right to do so.but when i see people like kambli,manindersingh,kirtiazad who had done nothing in their life they were orinary cricketer i began to laugh at them.what they had done in their cricket life .played few international matches telling tendulkar,dhoni how to bat.pity on them

  • tomlee1316 on March 14, 2011, 5:40 GMT

    why is sreeshanth not playing..? is he offered only one chance, because he was hit for 10 per over doesnt mean he is not a good bowler. he has good number of wickets palying against NZ, and he did good in the warm up match.. just because one game went bad doesnt mean putting him out is a good idea..if you look at the aggregate last last 5 matches, he has taken over over 10 wickets closely.. I doubt if Munaf or Nehra have done that. also he is an aggressive bowler. and R Ashwin bring him back to the squad. take out Nehra n Munaf as soon as possible. thank you.

  • maddy20 on March 13, 2011, 17:45 GMT

    @Mark00 Because since it is being forced upon them why not show the world how stupid it actually is? If UDRS has to be perfect then third umpire's call should be final during a review. Otherwise we will only have the on-field umpire's ego coming in the way of making the right decision(just like it happened when Asoka De Silva goofed up in the Ireland vs WI game).

  • dummy4fb on March 13, 2011, 13:43 GMT

    I go wiith Pijush Dey 296 is not a BAd score to defend,,, evn if india hve scored 300-350+ Runs. thn too it was difficult to defend such total/...for TEAM INDIA.. So better go with a gud combination.. not by ur Captaincy every tym . u wont have LUCK

  • Sidthoughtworks on March 13, 2011, 13:39 GMT

    Please note that we have had a last ball tie with England, lost to South Africa , allowed B'desh to score more than 250, and had hiccups chasing N'lands.

    The bowling always looks up to Zaheer for initial breakthrough and Bhajji to strike in the middle order...the rest are just going through their motions!!

    Winning a world cup does not mean that you score approx 300 in each game...it needs a allround effort in bowling and fielding too!!

    batting power play gives one the opportunity to find the gaps or go over the top...not blast 4's and 6's. The passion may be there bu the roles and responsibilities of individuals and the team seems to be vaguely defined..sometimes a standard approach may be better than a unconventional one!!

  • MazMK on March 13, 2011, 13:24 GMT

    Indian team have now been exposed. I was sick of listening to Shastri's and Manjeraker's biased commentary until the 40th over of Indian's inning. Which was well replied by SA as a team and in the field.

  • dummy4fb on March 13, 2011, 13:15 GMT

    Too much expectation on a team with some inherent shortcomings: Lack of wicket taking bowlers except Zaheer; remaining options including harbajan is not even able to hold one end up and keep up the pressure. The only option yet to be tried is Ashwin, and the captain can only play around with the squad available. Second aspect is the fielding: compared to the other teams we dont have the edge on this front. The third aspect is how roles for each member of the team: having someone like Kohli coming in at 7 or 8 is a utter waste of one slot, whatever be the situation if kohli is in the team, he should follow Gambir at number 4 slot. The roles for Pathan and Dhoni should be clear, both should go for attacking and not the scratching criket played by Dhoni which is too slow for even test match standards. Cricket is a team game, you dont depend on one or two to score big and the rest to score in single digits, rather its better if the middle and lower order chip in with useful 20-30s

  • dummy4fb on March 13, 2011, 12:50 GMT

    bowlers performance taken away the match from India ,,, though batting order collapsed,,,,296 is a very good total to defend...

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