India's got the looks
If they can handle the pressure of expectations, India have the strength to emerge on top, writes Sanjjeev Karan Samyal. Winning factor | Players to watch out for | Cup recordcricket Updated: Feb 15, 2011 13:17 IST
In India it is simple - Our team is just not supposed to lose. If it does, it's a catastrophe. The mourning will be wild and the backlash will be nerve-wracking. The bigger the stage, the greater the expectations.
The World Cup is here again and spare a thought for what Mahendra Singh Dhoni's men will have to cope with in the next month and a half.
Purely in terms of skill, the Men in Blue have the quality. Their current form is brilliant too. And, in a game where the benefits of playing at home are huge, India have been rated as big favourites.
However, weren't India favourites in 1987 and 1996 too? The players, who took part in the semi-final defeats in the two editions, warn from experience about how all the advantages can be buried under the massive weight of expectations.
In 1987, when Kapil Dev's men trooped out to face England, the setting was just perfect - the packed Wankhede galleries creating a din never heard before at a cricket match in support of their team. But when things started to drift away from India, a deathly silence engulfed the stands. The atmosphere turned so intimidating that the players wished they were playing anywhere but in India. That game helped Kapil understand the difference of playing as underdogs, when you have nothing to lose like in 1983, and the pressure of a favourite where winning is a must.
Mohammad Azharuddin's team felt the same chill run down their spine in 1996 at the Eden Gardens, where they collapsed like a pack of cards.
Playing for India at home can be a double-edged sword. And, before rating their chances, it will have to be factored in whether the players have the ability to react differently when confronted with a similar high-pressure situation.
Can Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh turn up differently than how they played in the 2003 final against Australia? Do we have the men who can steer the ship when things start going wrong?
It's about holding your nerve whether you are defending 183 or chasing 359. For India to break their 28-year-old dry run, it will be their mental strength that will be tested the most. There is greater optimism this time for exactly this very reason as experts believe Dhoni's men have the edge over Kapil's and Azhar's teams.
Players who are proven performers under pressure dominate the Indian team. Skipper Dhoni and coach Gary Kirsten are known as cool operators while Tendulkar just loves the big stage. He has proved it in 1996 and the 2003 editions, and post-2007 he has become better and better at handling tight situations. Sehwag doesn't know what that term means while for Gambhir the daunting the challenge, the better. Dhoni and Yuvraj are masters of rearguard action while Yusuf Pathan showed in South Africa what he's capable of in adversity.
Bowling a worry
It's the bowling department that is a bit of a worry. Zaheer Khan is known to lift his game according to the situation but there is a question mark over the other bowlers.
Venkatapathy Raju, who was in the selection committee that picked the team for the 2007 World Cup, believes playing at home can work both ways. "Everything is great when the going is good, but the opposite is also true. In 2007, everyone said we had selected the best team ever and when we lost, the backlash was like never seen before," he says.
And Raju should know all about the pressure of playing at home. He was part of the 1996 World Cup team that crashed out as Eden Gardens burned on that semi-final night.
"The pitch and environment are the main factors in cricket and when you are playing in familiar conditions, it is a big advantage. When the team is doing well, a great force starts to develop and the whole team can be lifted by the momentum," Chandrakant Pandit, who played in the 1987 World Cup, says.
"For it to happen, a strong start is the key. The flip side of playing at home is that there is no escape route at all. Everywhere you go you are reminded about it, the media, your friends, relatives, all will be asking you about the World Cup. The pressure of expectations just builds up," the former 'keeper-batsman said. The atmosphere at the World Cup can be intoxicating and motivating, provided you can turn it around in your favour.