By Veturi Srivatsa
On the eve of their key World Cup match against South Africa, India have to look at the results of Saturday�s two matches in planning out their strategy carefully to get their calculations right.
Pakistan, whom India beat in their tournament opener, were thrashed by the West Indies, who in their previous game had lost badly to Ireland. And the Group A match between Australia and Bangladesh was blown-off by tropical cyclone Marcia in Brisbane, alerting teams to take other elements also into consideration.
Both the results convey that nothing is safe except winning every match till a side is sure of its quarter-final berth. West Indies and Ireland can cause problems and if the game against lesser mortals is rained off, the team could be in trouble with calculators coming into play.
The best thing for India is to maintain the momentum and continue to play tight cricket like they did against Pakistan, covering all bases.
South Africa have never won the World Cup whereas India won it twice, the first time at Lord�s against the mighty West Indies even if someone says they won the second time at home against neighbours Sri Lanka.
The Proteas can turn back and say that the World Champions have never beaten them in the quadrennial event, losing all three matches over the years.
It is not that India have not beaten the Africans in a 50-over International Cricket Council (ICC) tournament. In the 2013 Champions Trophy they beat the Proteas by 26 runs at Cardiff in a high-scoring match in which over 600 runs were scored.
As for this World Cup, both would like to make sure they are on the right course to winning the Cup. Their Group B match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) Sunday will provide an indication as to how the two will fare in the tournament.
It is amusing to find assessments of man-to-man strengths and weaknesses, taking decimals in averages. To buttress the arguments, the performance of the teams and players in their last five One-Day Internationals (ODI) is magnified.
If the matches could be won on decimals and fractions, Ireland could not have rocked the West Indies or Pakistan could not have been beaten black and blue by the Caribbean team. Or, for that matter, South Africa would not have struggled against their neighbours Zimbabwe.
Of course, India will take heart from the way Zimbabwe stretched South Africa chasing 340.
In the first week of the tournament, Australia, New Zealand, India, West Indies and Ireland scored 300 and plus, the last named successfully chasing. The one indicator of these high scores are the wickets in the Antipodes around this time are quite dry and conducive to stroke-play, even if the odd ball misbehaves on the easy-paced pitches.
The week also saw some abysmally low scores, England collapsing to 123 against New Zealand at the windy Wellington, to lose their second group match on the trot. The Black Caps themselves had a tough time chasing Scotland�s 143-run target, losing seven wickets in getting to it.
The scoring patterns make things a little confusing and even by the end of the second week, things may not be clear as to who all are likely to make the quarter-finals barring, perhaps, New Zealand who would have played Australia to know whether they remain unbeaten. The long gaps between matches are also causing some tension even if they are giving time for players to recover from niggles.
Going by the statistical guide, India have a slightly better record at neutral venues, winning seven of 19 matches, than the five out of 28 in South Africa.
Still, things are so predictable. If the first 10 overs and the five overs of batting powerplay are crucial for the batting side, the middle overs bowled by spinners are becoming highly crucial for the fielding side.
The tweakers have not only to keep things tight but they have to take wickets to check the batsmen going berserk in the slog overs. If someone like AB de Villiers is there in the last 10 overs, the opposition will have it.
India got its combination perfect with five bowlers and Dhoni batting at six. It is unlikely the winning composition will be tinkered with, even though at the huge MCG, the spinners will have a tough time containing batsmen.
The way Ashwin bowled against Pakistan gives him and the team confidence and Ravindra Jadeja should be in shape, though the management may be tempted to play safe by adding an extra batsman at the expense of Jadeja. But the left-hander�s multi-faceted abilities can still be handy than a sixth batsman.
Much will again depend on how well Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma can keep the top-order quiet and force the batsmen to take fatal risks.
The Indian bowlers would not mind a few more runs from their batsmen for a cushion. In a one-day situation, one big hundred or two high fifty plus innings will make the others to play around them to get to the now par 300-run score.
It is highly unreasonable to expect Virat Kohli to get a hundred each time he goes out to bat. Shikhar Dhawan and Suresh Raina supplemented to Kohli�s big effort. Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane are due for big scores to give the other three to relax and bat with freedom.
All told, India have as much a chance of beating South Africa as the latter have of winning the World Cup.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])