The Cricket World Cup is a marathon event primed for plenty of unexpected twists in form, but India could hardly have done much more in their opening two matches to suggest that they are ready to put up a strong fight to hold onto the trophy. Winners in 2011, expectations were diminished this time around after the retirement of legendary talisman Sachin Tendulkar and disappointing one-day form in Australia ahead of the competition. But convincing victories over first fierce rivals Pakistan and this weekend, one of the leading favorites, South Africa, have seen the mood surrounding the team alter considerably.
Before gaining a victory over minnows Afghanistan on the eve of the event, India had lost all four one-day matches they had played on Australian soil in preparation for the World Cup. And their perfect 5-0 record against neighbors Pakistan in World Cups looked in potential jeopardy in their opening match. Instead, India prevailed by 76 runs. But considerably more impressive was India’s second outing. South Africa had beaten India in all three previous World Cup meetings and contained the batsmen ranked the best two in the world in ODIs by the International Cricket Council (ICC), in AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, as well as leading fast bowler Dale Steyn.
Yet it was Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side that came out on top with a massive 130-run victory at the famed Melbourne Cricket Ground. Again the batting was impressive, reaching at least 300 for the second game running. Whereas against Pakistan, it was star man Virat Kohli’s century that led the way, this time it was opener Shikhar Dhawan who stepped up his return to form by firing a superb 137 to help India to a total of 307.
“The kind of wins that we have had in the last two games, it's tough to get, so definitely both the games were important for us,” Dhoni said afterward, reports the Times of India. “The way we played in this game, also -- last game I said it was a complete batting performance, but this game also I felt we did really well with the batting. We tried something different.”
But perhaps more impressive has been India’s bowling. It was that area of the team that was expected to be India’s undoing in their attempts to repeat their success of four years ago in Australia and New Zealand. And after bowling out South Africa for just 177, Dhoni unsurprisingly played tribute to the likes of Mohammed Shami, Mohit Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin.
“Definitely, it was a fantastic performance,” he said. “Maybe, the wicket also helped us a bit, but still, hitting the right areas, the length, according to the wicket, how the wicket is behaving, is crucial, and I felt that was the main aspect where we were really good that they quickly assessed what was the right length to bowl, and they didn't give too much role. “In the first 10 overs this was definitely one of our best performances in the recent past.”
If the bowlers can maintain that form, then India will expect to go a long way in this World Cup, especially with their being potentially more to come from the batting lineup. Already a win over South Africa has put India in prime position to qualify from Pool B as one of the top two teams. That could prove to be crucial in allowing them to avoid a meeting with the co-hosts and in-form duo Australia and New Zealand in the quarterfinals. India will almost certainly start as strong favorites to win each of their remaining group matches, against the United Arab Emirates, West Indies, Ireland and Zimbabwe.
They would surely be confident, too, of getting past the last eight. Australia and New Zealand appear by some distance the strongest teams in Pool A, with England and Sri Lanka, favorites to join them in progressing and await India in the quarterfinals, far from impressing thus far. From there, one of the co-hosts could well lie in wait in the semifinals to present a massive challenge to India’s title credentials.