Right. We are now in the quarter-finals stage of the World Cup and the top 8 teams have made it through the initial rounds to the business end of the tournament. The one thing about this World Cup that stands out is, all the teams are beatable on the day and there are no clear favorites going into the knock-out stage. For a cricket fan, this is great news because we can now look forward to 7 good, competitive games of cricket where either of the two teams competing on the day, can win and knock out the other team. Lets look at the India-Australia game in some detail.
Indian team selection
Ashwin will be a definite starter in the line-up, so the strategy will most likely be, 2 pacers and 2 spinners. Regarding the batting, someone suggested that Gautam Gambhir can be dropped in order to bring in Raina. I have no problems if Raina is accomodated in place of Gambhir or even Pathan. Anyway, Dhoni has not been using Pathan properly and that means, his effectiveness is reduced considerably. Besides, we have Harbhajan and Ashwin to provide off-spin, besides Raina. So Yusuf is not needed for his off-spin. Bottom line is, if we go with the thought that Raina should play, it makes little difference if Gambhir or Yusuf are dropped for him. In fact, I am inclined to think that Dhoni may drop Yusuf in that case and retain Gambhir. I am also ok with India retaining their original eleven and keeping Raina out. Anyway, Australia have 3 quick pacers, so Raina if he plays, will be severely tested with the short ball that he is obviously uncomfortable playing. So Raina is not a must-have against Australia in my opinion.
Their strength is their pace bowling trio of Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson. Lee has made a very good comeback to the Aussie side and is bowling very well in the WC so far. Tait is an X-factor in their bowling, he can be a bit expensive, but needs to be watched because he has serious pace and can grab a few quick wickets and put pressure on the Indian batting. Johnson is also capable of taking a few wickets, and equally capable of a having a bad day as he showed so often in the Ashes recently.
The weakness of this Aussie side is the lack of a good spinner who can take wickets in the middle overs. Krejza has been mediocre in the WC so far, but the issue has been masked by the performance of the pace trio. Also, their fifth bowler is a combination of Shane Watson and Steve Smith. They dont look too threatening and are steady at best, and can be milked for 50-60 runs in my opinion. So it is important for India to start well and preserve wickets against the new ball and look to attack the 4th and 5th bowlers.
Another weakness in the Australia team is the lack of explosive batsmen in their line-up. Almost all their batsmen score around at a strike rate of around 80-85. So Indian bowlers should be confident going into this match that their bowling analysis will not take a big beating against this Aussie line-up. Having said that, they are all capable of big hits if Indian bowlers bowl badly and are not to be taken lightly. My point was, the Aussie batsmen look to get set and then score quickly, unlike some batsmen from other teams who hit out from ball one onwards.
India should look to field first on winning the toss. Let me explain the reasoning behind this. I agree that it is a quarter-final and one school of thought is, that for knock-out matches in tournaments like the World Cup, it is better to have runs on the board and look to defend that and put pressure on the team batting second. But we have seen several times in this WC that Indian batting loses its way in the end overs when batting first. One reason could be that they dont have a definite target in front of them which they will have while chasing. Once they get to a position of relative strength, they appear to relax a bit in the mind and that leads to embarrassing collapses.
If they bat second, they have a definite target to chase. We have a few batsmen at the top who are capable of battng through the innings, like Sachin, Gambhir, Kohli. If the batsmen have a target in front of them, the chances are higher that someone like Sachin will put his hand up and look to bat through the innings so that the others can play around him and look to keep up with the required run rate.
If we bowl first, the bowlers should look to make use of the slowness of the pitch in the afternoon session and restrict Australia to a reasonable score. Now, what is a reasonable score to chase ? In Ahmedabad, I dont think there is an issue with dew and the pitch too will most likely behave similarly in both sessions. If anything, the ball may come on to the bat a bit better under lights. If this was any other team India was playing, I would have said that 270-280 was a gettable score. But Australia have good quick bowlers who attack and look to take wickets all the time. Also, they are brilliant in the field and will not give an inch. So in my opinion, anything under 250 or maximum 260, is the score India should look to chase if they bat second. Anything more than that will be tough because the Aussies exert so much pressure on the field, either with the fielding or just by talking. So chasing anything more than 260 is going to be a very difficult task in my opinion.
One more point about strategy. Since the Aussie batsmen are not explosive, they will look to exert pressure on the Indian fielders by running quick singles and lots of twos. So the field positions have to be perfect and the fielders in the circle should be placed to actually do that and not deep. India should look to open the bowling with Ashwin again. Zak and Harbhajan should be used with attacking fields and should be allowed to exert pressure on the batsmen by bowling lots of dot balls. Ricky Ponting is a danger man even though he is not batting well in this WC because he is one batsman who can really score quickly once he is set, and India should look to Harbhajan or Ashwin to take him out early.
I am not going to stick my neck out by making a prediction for the QFs, SFs and finals. But if India bowl first and keep the Aussie batsmen from taking too many easy singles and twos, they should be able to chase down the total set to them.
Again, I am not going to single out one performer for either team. It has to be a collective effort. But both teams will go into the match with the confidence that the other team can be beaten. As a cricket fan, that is all we ask for - somewhat equal teams playing tough cricket at a critical stage in the World Cup in front of a huge crowd.
Lets hope for a great game and ofcourse, an Indian win at the end of it :)