South Africa’s coach hit the nail on the head when probed on his team’s loss to India. "It was not as though we were out-thought or taken by surprise," said Corrie van Zyl. "Even the day before the game we knew that Harbhajan Singh would open the bowling. It’s just that we didn’t execute well enough on the day."
While that truism applies to all forms, it’s something that is brought into sharp focus in the Twenty20 format, and never more so than in a short, sharp tournament like this one. Even in the Indian Premier League, now acknowledged as the toughest, teams have some breathing room, thanks to the home and away format. There is time to come back into contention even after a losing streak of three or four matches, as was amply proven in the latest edition. It was only in the penultimate game of the league phase that the line-up of semifinalists was decided.
Here, however, one slip up is all it takes for a team to be sent packing. The first phase of the competition has gone by the formbook, with no serious upsets despite interruptions due to rain and curtailed matches. The minnows, Ireland, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and almost certainly Bangladesh, have been knocked out, leaving the major nations in the fray for the title. Bangladesh are still in with a chance of knocking Pakistan out, but for that to happen they must defeat Australia on a Barbados pitch expected to be of assistance to the Australian pace battery.
For India, every match is a tight one from here on. Their first assignment is Australia, but it doesn’t really get much easier with hosts West Indies and Sri Lanka to follow. The challenge of playing at different venues, against teams that boast of different strengths is one that skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni will be aware of.
Against Australia, it is the all-round strength of the unit, and the ability to stick to plans that will be crucial. When India play the unpredictable West Indians, the ability to convert the half chances that come their way, especially against explosive batsmen like Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard, will make the difference.
When they take on neighbours Sri Lanka, who play a very similar brand of T20 cricket - dependent on someone from the top order to anchor the innings and relying on spin for containment and penetration - the ability to surprise and do things differently will be a valuable asset.
With these demands being made of the team, Dhoni’s role as captain, and conductor of the orchestra becomes important. Already in the two matches they have played, one without Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan, India have shown that they have the pieces required to complete the T20 jigsaw. If Dhoni can bring them all together on the day, India will be the team to beat.