Former India captain Rahul Dravid believes the success of India's fast bowlers has given a new "dimension" to the team at the World Cup. Speaking to ESPNcricinfo ahead of India's final game in Group B against Zimbabwe on Saturday, Dravid said opposition teams were hoping that India's bowling "wouldn't fire," making them "vulnerable" in the tournament, but that has not happened.
"Teams would have always known India's batting would test them. It's a serious, talented and exciting top seven," Dravid said. "What teams would have hoped for is that the bowling wouldn't fire, which would make India a little bit vulnerable. As soon as the bowlers have done well, it suddenly gives it a new dimension. Now teams know that India is not going to be under pressure to score par plus 25% runs every time they go out to bat. That makes their batting a lot stronger as well. Every time India has chased, they have chased a par score. Chasing down 300-plus scores against India is not going to be as easy, so that puts pressure on the opposition right from the start because they know that both facets of India's game, and the fielding as well is firing."
India's fast bowling trio of Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma have taken 26 wickets between them so far and none of them has conceded more than five runs per over. India's tendency to leak runs in the death overs was identified as one of their areas of concern ahead of the World Cup and Dravid believes the success of Shami, Umesh and Mohit has been a "pleasant surprise."
"The strategy is very good, they've realised in Australia there's more value in bowling back of a length, hitting the deck, especially as the ball hasn't swung much in Australia, surprisingly in this tournament," Dravid said. "Ishant Sharma was supposed to be in this team, he had to leave because of injury, he was India's most experienced bowler. Bhuvneshwar has been out of form, but the three guys who have played have been exceptional. Credit to Mohit Sharma, he has come in and been a vital cog in that team, been able to control those middle overs and be able to bowl in the death, which has been a problem for India."
While the seamers have played a key role, R Ashwin has backed up their efforts with some eye-catching performances of his own. With 11 wickets in the tournament so far at an average of 16.63 and economy rate of 3.89, Ashwin has been one of the standout bowlers of the tournament so far. Dravid credits Ashwin's performances so far to overcoming the "defensive mindset" that had crept into his game over the last year or so.
"When he started playing international cricket, you could sense the level of confidence, he believed he was there to take wickets, he believed he could control the game, he could get a breakthrough when his captain demanded it of him," Dravid said. "At times, over the last year or so he became a defensive kind of bowler. He lost a bit of confidence in his ability maybe, but it's all come back. He's trusted himself to take more risks, he's bowled really good lines, he's bowled slower through the air, he's got the ball to turn. Once your spinner sees it coming out of the hand, turning and bouncing that makes him a different bowler. Once he's seen that ball leave his hand beautifully, the revolutions are there, there's good control."
While many observers believe MS Dhoni has captained with greater aggression in this tournament than in previous months, Dravid is of the view that Dhoni's leadership is a factor of the "resources" he has at his command. "In India, in Test matches he is attacking, he is pro-active because he has the spinners who can take wickets in these kinds of conditions," Dravid said. "That's what happens in one-day cricket, if his bowlers are bowling well, he knows he has the resources, he is able to play five bowlers which in itself is a great advantage. He has three seamers who are bowling well, pitching the ball up which gives him attacking options and then he has two spinners to fall back on."
Dravid was also all praise for Shikhar Dhawan, who has left a poor run of recent form behind, and Ajinkya Rahane, who was dogged by inconsistency in one-day cricket. Both have turned in impressive performances at the World Cup so far with Dhawan making two match-winning centuries and Rahane producing a couple of sparkling knocks.
"Once he has got the runs, we know he is actually someone who does turn it on in one-day cricket. He scores hundreds, converts starts and he has a very good record in one-day cricket over the last two years," Dravid said of Dhawan. "You didn't get the impression at any stage that he wasn't trying hard, he just wasn't able to deal with some of the bowling he had to deal with, he's come to terms with the conditions there and playing brilliantly.
"Batting at No. 4, a set spot, not being pushed up and down, has given him [Rahane] the confidence and the belief. You are seeing that in his shot-making, he's been willing to trust his shots a lot more, give himself time and not play high-risk shots all the time. The key for me with Rahane is that he has to trust his ability. There are times when he tries too many high-risk shots which he doesn't need to. He's such a skilled batsman and good player that he's going to make up. Anything that's fractionally loose, he will pick up on it. So he just needs to bat through the difficult periods of the game."
India can end the group stage with a clean slate if they beat Zimbabwe on Saturday in Auckland. With the team management unlikely to make any changes to the playing XI, keeping the likes of Ambati Rayudu, Axar Patel and Stuart Binny on the bench, Dravid suggests India should consider "changing the roles" of some of the players who are part of the playing XI."With the quarter-final just one game away, India really has shown their hand, they are not going to be changing too much unless there's an injury. What I would be keen to do is, change people's batting order around, to give a few more opportunities for guys like Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja to bat a little ahead. Bowl Jadeja at a different time in the game to see what other options you have in the knockout."
While India have been dominant over the last few weeks, Dravid cautions that the knockouts are a "completely different tournament" and India will have to take the next stage "one step at a time" over the final stretch. "There are four-five teams who are very capable of winning this tournament. India happens to be one of them but you still have to get the job done, you still have three big games coming up to win the tournament. You've got to have three very good days, it doesn't matter what you have done. It's not easy. Just take it one step at a time, play the opponent you are faced with on that particular day rather than looking too far ahead and winning the tournament."