With yet another outstanding spell of seam moving in the last ODI of the series against Pakistan at Johannesburg, Shaun Pollock has further underlined the fact that going into the World Cup, he is the premier bowler in one-day cricket. Pollock's 5 for 23 in ten overs were outstanding returns, and more so because all his victims were top-order players, including Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq.
A couple of years back, the word going around was that Pollock's powers as a bowler were on the wane - the loss of pace meant his wicket-taking ability had reduced, while his metronomic accuracy had an air of predictability to it, which allowed batsmen to score more easily off him. Since 2006, though, Pollock has rediscovered the venom of old: his runs per wicket has almost halved, compared to the two previous years, while the economy rate has dropped almost 25% as well. In the run-up to the World Cup, his form has been truly spectacular - the 2006-07 season has already fetched him 25 wickets at an average of 16 and a staggering economy rate of 2.99.
To focus on run-saving or to hunt for wickets? That's a dilemma most bowlers have had to work out in the ODI format, because it's almost assumed that a bowler can't do both - if he tries to take wickets, he'll invariably leak a few runs, while focussing on economy will diminish the wicket-taking abilities. In the last year, not only has Pollock done both, he has also excelled in each, topping each table by a considerable margin. And it's interesting to note that apart from Pollock and his fellow metronome Glenn McGrath, none of the other bowlers have made it into both lists.
Pollock's strike rate of 32.4 balls per wicket has been bettered by seven bowlers among the top ten in the averages list, but that won't worry Graeme Smith too much. Admittedly the pitches in South Africa did offer some assistance which the tracks in West Indies might not, but given Pollock's class and experience, Smith has every right to expect more such virtuoso performances when the stakes get higher.
The middle-order question
Back in the familiar confines of home territory, the Indian team has at least shown signs of getting back to their winning ways - though they haven't forgotten the art of throwing away games which they should have won in a canter. Virender Sehwag's form remains a worry, but the encouraging bit has been the manner in which two other middle-order batsmen who were so vital to India's golden run the previous year, have rediscovered their touch. Both Rahul Dravid and Mahendra Singh Dhoni suffered huge dips in form through the second half of 2006 - which coincided with India winning only three out of 17 ODIs - but the early part of 2007 has been far happier for them.
The positions between numbers five and eight are often key for an ODI side, and as the table here shows, the Indians have, in the last couple of years, had very handy personnel manning those positions. Their average of 33.12 runs per wicket for the fifth, sixth and seventh wickets is next only to Australia and the South Africans, who are now rapidly closing the gap on the world champions. Thanks mainly to Dhoni, Dravid and Yuvraj Singh, India's average partnership is higher than those achieved by New Zealand and Pakistan, teams which are renowned for their lower-middle-order strength.
The list below offers more proof - in any is still needed - on why India need Dhoni to be in excellent batting form during the World Cup. Three of the five best lower-middle-order pairs in the last two years have the meaty presence of Dhoni, as he combined with Yuvraj, Raina and Dravid to bail India out more than once.
Scroll down Dhoni's career summary page, and you'll notice that he averages almost 88 in wins, and only one-third that number in defeats. How he shapes up with the bat in the West Indies could well dictate how far India progress in the World Cup.