Saturday , June 08, 2013 at 22 : 00
Recently there was a poll on one of the most popular cricket websites in the world. The question asked was a simple one. Which team starts as favourites for the Champions Trophy? At last count, nearly 180,000 votes had come in and one team was miles ahead with rank-clear majority. India are the fans' favourites heading into the tournament, with as many as 60 per cent of the votes in their kitty.
Now there are two ways to look at it. One, the sub-continental passion is the market that drives world cricket's economy and everything related to it. And similarly it also drives the traffic on most of these universal cricket websites, thereby deeming this upswing in votes to plain and simple old-school high-pitched fandom.
The other way, which is a bit worrying, is that the objectivity of the fans is sometimes blinded by this unbounded passion they have for their favourite cricketers. Going into the tournament, the Men in Blue seemed in trouble. They had not travelled abroad for more than a year, the team is in transition and new blood has seeped into every corner of the squad. The batting is dependent on two batsmen, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni, with the in-form Dinesh Karthik chipping in. The bowling attack continues to raise questions.
But all of this was before a ball was bowled in anger. As soon as the tournament started (at the time of writing), India had thumped South Africa in the opening match at Cardiff. Sure, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn were missing, but that is the Proteas' problem. MS Dhoni's young team batted well, backed it up with consistent bowling spells and they were just wonderful in the field, coping well with alien conditions after a year spent playing at home.
It makes for a good start, but does that install them as favourites for the title? Maybe, maybe not!
The first bit is to do with consistency. As the number one ranked team in the world, it is up to the Indian team to keep doing it, hitting the mark again and again. It will only get easier against West Indies, in comparison to the match against South Africa, and then the Pakistan game becomes a normal cricket match, devoid of the pressure-cooker situation. For a young team in transition, a semi-final spot is enough to showcase their progress towards the 2015 ODI World Cup. All of this, though, is easier said than done.
And it is because the second bit comes into play, the 'maybe not' part. ODI rules today have changed to such an extent that any team whose traditional strengths don't match up, will eventually have to strive for consistency against the odds at all times. Herein, one is talking specifically of two rules, with dual new-balls from both ends and the fielding restriction of just four fielders outside the 30-yard circle.
There are many disadvantages to the two new-balls rule. It inadvertently takes away any plusses for the spinners. It can be argued that in the existing world of T20 leagues, spinners have learnt to bowl with shining white balls. Even so, bowling on sub-continental pitches which will help you with bite is altogether a different matter than bowling in conditions where the wickets are hard and the ball comes easily onto the bat when bowled quicker. It is easy to slip away and go off-track.
A team that plays three or more quick-bowlers needs to be wary of this fact and the balance of any and every bowling attack becomes paramount. Someone like Pakistan who have good seam bowlers for every condition, buoyed by some world-class all-rounders who double up as spinners, with always have the edge. And then there is Saeed Ajmal.
It is their inconsistency with the bat that makes Pakistan vulnerable and this is not a T20 festival wherein someone like Shahid Afridi can stamp his authority. The horses-for-courses policy will work here, for the batsmen need to graft and build, setting up the stage, before the latter batsman can take advantage in the last twenty overs. The four fielders' restriction - coupled with two hard balls in use from both ends - means that totals in excess of 300 will be scored and chased down with some regularity now.
It puts in odd perspective a team like England, one that boasts of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott in their top-order. During their recent ODI series against New Zealand, time and again, the English batting found it difficult to get a move on and this despite three stoic batsmen taking their time settling down. Not every time can you expect an Eoin Morgan or Joss Butler to explode in the finishing overs and take you over the finishing line!
In the end, it can be surmised that the new set of rules have convoluted things quite a bit. In such a scenario there is no one favourite team. There is only the small matter of coping with the conditions and optimising your strategy on the day. Team India did so on the opening day of the ICC Champions Trophy 2013. Can they do it in four more matches?