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India get their groove back

Shikhar Dhawan sways to avoid a bouncer Getty Images

Piece by piece, India are rediscovering their one-day mojo. Or perhaps they had never lost it really, and their lacklustre performance during the tri-series that preceded the World Cup was merely a tactical retreat to keep something in the tank for their title defence. Four months of international cricket on the road can make you fall out of love with your job, and that India have looked fresh and sharp in their opening World Cup matches is a win in itself.

For Indian fans, this 144-day campaign carried the risk of the nightmare of 1992 repeated, when defeats in the stop-start Test series and in the tri-series finals were followed by just two World Cup wins - against Pakistan and Zimbabwe. This time, India came to the World Cup with an even more dismal record: not till they beat Afghanistan in the final World Cup warm-up match had they managed to win a thing all summer. After a spirited Test series, their batting seemed to have lost its spring, and the bowling hadn't turned up at all.

But throughout his captaincy, in one-day cricket in particular, MS Dhoni has made the ability to play around the limitations of his team his greatest virtue. He ran the 2011 World Cup campaign around an unfit team, with the knowledge that he could only push his bowlers so much. Four years later, with a team that has only four survivors from 2011, Dhoni has had two big challenges: to give belief to his inexperienced charges, and to keep them from burning out. Those familiar with Dhoni's methods know that he will have invested very little in the tri-series, both in terms of mental and physical energy. In fact, not getting to the final meant more downtime.

And now, two games into the World Cup, the levers of the Indian one-day machine are falling into place. The win against South Africa was achieved with a felicity that might have surprised even them, but a template is becoming evident. And what will encourage the Indian supporters - they are a story in themselves - is that the perceived weak links of the team have played starring roles in both wins.

Throughout the tour, Shikhar Dhawan, India's major batsman in their last successful world title campaign - the Champions Trophy in the UK - has cut a forlorn figure, unable to come to grips with the bounce on Australian pitches. For the second successive Test series away from home, he had to be dropped from the playing XI following a sequence of poor scores apparently caused by a lack of technique for the given conditions. He was so unconvincing that not retaining M Vijay, one of India's major batting successes during Test tour, for the World Cup had begun to seem a tactical blunder.

But as Dhoni said after the South Africa game, the space and time to work in the nets is sometimes underestimated. Dhawan's 38 in India's final game of the tri-series, against England, was perhaps the only gain for India from their poor batting performance, but Dhawan has returned from the break in a far more decisive frame, and his off-side strokeplay, his strength as well as his weakness - has regained its verve. He has been prepared to leave balls outside the off stump, and the tentativeness that had crept into his game is gone: the bat now meets the ball with the old swagger, and the cuts are going screaming again. He was set for a century when he was run out against Pakistan, and in Melbourne, he made good his luck from a drop by adding nearly a hundred runs to his total.

From the Indian perspective, the performance of the bowlers, the butt of a million jokes through the summer, will be more uplifting. In the Tests, only twice in eight innings did they manage to take ten wickets, and neither time was it for under 500 runs. It took the Australians swinging away in a practice match for India to take ten wickets in a limited-overs game. The cost: 371 runs.

India's fast bowlers resembled run-feeding machines, obliged to provide at least one boundary ball every over. Many opening spells in the Tests cost over six, and Ishant Sharma was the only Indian fast bowler to finish the Test series with an economy rate of under four.

The batting has delivered in the first two matches. Not spectacularly, but not as massively as it was feared they would need to do to compensate for the misfiring bowlers. There has been a calm assurance about the construction of the innings. Against Pakistan, the 50 came up the 12th over, and against South Africa in the 14th. Against Pakistan, the run rate first touched 5 in the 21st over; against South Africa, it didn't happen till the 27th. But in both matches, the second-wicket partnership put on more than 100, and both involved Virat Kohli, who, it might seem now, was saving his one-day form for the World Cup. The ballast was provided on both occasions by the No. 4: Suresh Raina against Pakistan and Ajinkya Rahane against South Africa. And from that base, 300 had become an inevitability by the 40th over. However, when the innings ended, it felt on both occasions that India had finished at least 20 short of what was achievable.

But remarkably the bowlers have not merely ensured wins but a net run rate of over two. Perhaps the format, and the clarity of the task, has settled their focus. Something certainly stirs within Mohammed Shami when he has the white ball in hand. The wrist is obedient, and the ball has stayed in the channel around off stump. In the World Cup matches he has provided the breakthrough with the new ball, and conceded less than 4 in the first five overs. Umesh Yadav, who could invariably be relied upon by the opposition to concede over seven runs per over in his opening spells in the Tests, has hustled the openers with pace, and the boundaries off him in the opening spells have come off hurried top edges.

In many ways, Mohit Sharma has been India's most impressive bowler. A replacement for the injured Ishant Sharma, he has been chosen ahead of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and he has rewarded the faith showed in him with remarkable accuracy and smart use of the bouncer. The bounce on Australian pitches makes his length awkward, and at the MCG, Dhoni encouraged Mohit to bowl short with men on the long square boundaries. Hashim Amla's wicket was a plan executed to precision.

As the icing, India also managed to outfield South Africa, taking all their catches, and effecting two crucial run-outs that terminally punctured the chase.

India were never in real danger of missing out on the knockouts, but these wins have put them in a position to top their group and earn a lighter quarter-final opponent. Australia, South Africa and New Zealand carried the buzz into the tournament, and now with the reigning champions gliding in, the din in the stands is no longer just white noise.