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?

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