Another flat subcontinent pitch, another ineffective performance by the Indian bowlers. And all of a sudden the favourites going in to the tournament find themselves one defeat short of being ousted from the event. If India lose to Sri Lanka on Thursday, and if Pakistan, as expected, beat Bangladesh the day after, both teams will be tied on four points. In that scenario, by the virtue of having won more matches in the Super Four stage, Pakistan will go through.
However, India still haven't reached a stage where they rely on some other match. All they need to do is beat Sri Lanka, something they did twice in three matches during the CB Series in Australia. Therein lies the story: the CB Series was played in Australia, the Asia Cup is being played in Pakistan. And the Indian bowlers react differently to the two types of conditions.
When they lost to Pakistan today, it was the tenth time in the last one year that they conceded a total of 300 runs, seven of those in the subcontinent. While most of the Indian bowlers boast of a better record overseas, Chaminda Vaas' statistics are slightly better in the subcontinent than outside. Muttiah Muralitharan's effectiveness on subcontinent pitches can hardly be overstated.
Even today, it was the Indian fast bowlers who perhaps made the target look about 20 less than it was. Praveen Kumar, who has almost always got the new ball to do something so far in his career, was out of sorts bowling to two left-hand openers. Ishant Sharma, who came in to replace Praveen, gave away 16 in his first over. Irfan Pathan, with his reduced pace, was always going to struggle on pitches that give him zero assistance. Dhoni thought the bowlers gave it their all, but the pitch was just too unresponsive. "They tried everything, whatever they had in the armoury they tried," Dhoni said. "On a wicket like this, the only way you can stop batsmen from scoring runs is taking wickets. While we were batting we lost three quick wickets when we were batting, and all of a sudden Rohit and I were under pressure."
Apart from the continued ineffectiveness of the fast bowlers, Piyush Chawla looked quite innocuous too. But to ask someone so inexperienced to deliver on a pitch so doped might be a bit harsh, Dhoni reckoned. "There is no assistance, especially for spinners, on this wicket. You have to be an experienced spinner with a lot of variations. You have to exploit [whatever little the pitch has], and bowl according to wicket. If you have someone like that you can put pressure on batsmen, otherwise even 330 can be difficult to defend."
To set all this right India have about 13 hours after having played a gruelling match in tough conditions. Dhoni, who has been critical of the schedule, which has Pakistan playing the last match against Bangladesh, chose to look only at what was in his side's control. "It's definitely tough, especially if you are playing Sri Lanka," Dhoni said. "But it's very rare that you get to play back-to-back matches. And as a professional cricketer you have to be ready."
The playing conditions also, in a way, render the points carried forward from the first round ineffective by making Super Four wins the tie-breaking criterion. In last year's World Cup, by contrast, teams carried forward points but didn't face their first-round opponents in the next stage. Dhoni and his team, though, would not want to think about these things for the next 13 hours, and during the match.