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Champions Trophy 2017: Short term success or long term preparation for India?
A billion expectations. A billion “qualified pundits”. More importantly, a billion hearts stop when the Indian cricket team step out onto the pitch at the beginning of a tournament. Add to this a necessary meeting with arch rivals and neighbours Pakistan, the pressure and stakes can never be higher. Any team that fails to deliver on the expectation of winning the tournament is met with a barrage of criticism from people thinking they know best. Yet, in the calmness provided by MS Dhoni over the last decade, India have been remarkably consistent at major championships. Making semi-finals consistently and ultimately winning the three biggest trophies in the last decade has been nothing short of spectacular. Now, with Virat Kohli at the helm, a big question to ask will be whether he will follow Dhoni’s guide of handling the pressure or embrace a new style of cricket that can peak come two years time in arguably a bigger competition?
Everyone has spoken extensively about the changes that T20 cricket has brought to the game of cricket and whether it has been a positive or negative. However, it cannot be denied that T20 has had a massive impact on the way one day internationals are played. The first 10 overs are crucial for the batting side to make a statement and set the tone. The middle overs give a chance to the bowlers to get back into the game or increase the grip of their stranglehold on the opposition. The last 20 overs are now the time where the batting side is expected to double the score made in the first 30 overs. Therefore, more and more international sides replicate their T20 side in the ODI side since every part of the game requires explosive players. Over the last few years, India has also transferred their T20 side to the ODI team and as seen by their tournament success, they have made the change almost seamless. However, as Virat Kohli pointed out in his press conference before the tournament, the Champions Trophy is a tournament where teams need to be at their best from the word go, rather than what they could do at a World Cup. With this impetus on playing well from the start, it is vital that the question marks regarding the make up of the side are answered emphatically. However, is it really going to be easy picking a settled side?
One topic of conversation which has been picking up pace since the IPL has been of that who will open for India at #CT17. Many of you will probably be thinking that this is a foregone conclusion, with Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma looking to continue their formidable partnership. The unfortunate injury of KL Rahul has given Dhawan a chance to get back into the squad and probably the side too. But, there is one factor that provides doubt. The conditions of the English summer. Characteristically overcast would give Ajinkya Rahane fans like myself hope that he can play in the side. The best Indian overseas player and one of the most reliable players has had a difficult six months. Injury and poor form have made fans ridicule him rather than support him. However, the support of Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble has been evident and Kohli has clearly stated that he knows who will open the innings for India in the tournament. While I would love Rahane to play and prove everybody wrong, Kohli must put his faith in Sharma and Dhawan to deliver, just like they did four years ago. They may be unsuccessful in the first few matches, but come the big matches they will be hugely important for the team’s chances of winning the tournament. Their aggressive play will be rewarded rather than keeping safe and prioritising the keeping of wickets in hand.
Another question will be the make up of the bowling lineup for India. Again, the recent IPL has provided the best bowlers in India a chance to prove themselves. Yet again, Bhuvneshwar Kumar showed that he has all the skills to be a world class bowler for India. Despite his stellar form whenever called upon, injuries and questionable team selection has kept him from locking down a place in the side. With Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin nailed on, this leaves three spaces in the team. Umesh Yadav continued his outstanding test form into the IPL and Jasprit Bumrah will be trusted with his wonderful skill at the end of innings. One of Mohammed Shami or Kumar will have to miss out unfortunately. While Shami’s talent and skill is unquestionable, form must be favoured and Kumar must be trusted with the new ball in England. Add to form, his spectacular control of swing and pedigree in English conditions must be favoured. Looking at the bowling lineup as a whole, it seems as if the team has all bases covered. World class spinners, brilliant swing bowlers and the ability to bang it in short with pace. While the batting lineup will be feared, rival teams should not forget about the bowling abilities of the Indians.
Moving on from all of these lineup issues, a fascinating subplot will be the relationship between Kohli and Dhoni at a tournament. As mentioned, this will be the first time at a tournament, Kohli will be the leader of the pack at a major tournament. He has faced pressure all of his career, but this may be different. Ultimately, more people will be watching India at this tournament than times past and there will be more questions to answer. Dhoni managed this transition from regular international games to tournament games masterfully. Many Indian pundits and ex players have placed confidence in Kohli to deliver victory but the Australian legends have made a great point. Michael Clarke and others have said Kohli must seek the advice of Dhoni in the pressure moments. Maybe look at the way Steven Smith captained the Rising Pune Supergiants in the IPL and that could be the blueprint on how to be successful. Add to that the experience of Yuvraj Singh and Sharma, India have experience and youth balanced in an almost perfectly.
As India gear up for another tournament, all eyes are on Kohli’s boys to defend the trophy they won four years ago. While they may not be successful in that chase, they should see it at as some key preparation to stun the world two years from now on the biggest stage.