Mahendra Singh Dhoni
Mahendra Singh Dhoni and India face two tough matches if they are to retain the Cricket World Cup. Reuters

India now know exactly what stands between them and retaining their Cricket World Cup title. If Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men can get past Australia in Thursday’s semifinal in Sydney, they will take on the competition’s other co-hosts New Zealand in Sunday’s final at the famed Melbourne Cricket Ground for the chance to lift the World Cup trophy for a third time.

Should they do so, it would be an extraordinary achievement. Having fulfilled expectations when claiming the crown on home soil four years ago, few even expected India to be a major threat to prevail this time in very different conditions in Australia and New Zealand. Those doubts were well founded. While India were admirably thorough in their attempts to adjust to Australian conditions, there was very little to suggest they were having success heading into the World Cup.

Indeed, they had not won a single match, through both a four-match Test series against their hosts and a One-Day International tri-series also involving England. Fresh from a 5-0 victory over Sri Lanka in a home ODI series, India lost to both Australia and England twice in the 50-over format. In only one of their five ODIs, also including a warm-up match against Afghanistan, were India able to bowl the opposition out, and that was after Australia had already notched up a total of 371.

While there were few concerns about the batting, it appeared that India’s bowling attack would be a major weakness on pitches that, in contrast to those in India, generally reward pace rather than spin. Few would have believed then that six weeks later, India would be in the semifinals of the World Cup having taken 70 wickets in seven consecutive victories, with no team yet reaching 300 against them. India’s fast bowlers have exceeded expectations, with Mohammed Shami’s 17 wickets, only surpassed through to the semifinal stage by the 18 of Australia’s Mitchell Starc. Meanwhile, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma have added a further 25 between them. Australia captain Michael Clarke is one of those who believes Australia’s now more than four month stay Down Under has been greatly beneficial.

“I think they’re obviously playing a lot better than they were throughout the start of the summer,” he said after Australia’s win over Pakistan in the quarterfinals. “And I said that leading into the World Cup that India were going to be a tough team to beat, obviously because they’re a very good team, but also because they’ve spent so much time in Australia, they know the conditions quite well.”

And the condition of the Sydney Cricket Ground pitch has looked set to be favorable to India as well. Australia’s concern has been shown by bowler Josh Hazelwood criticizing the surface that the Australian team encountered when taking on India in the New Year’s Test match. Hazlewood and others have been publicly expressing their desire for a pitch that has enough grass on it to encourage their pace bowling, rather than India’s spin.

The way they have performed so far, India will hope to thrive regardless of the conditions. Should they prevail, they will be taking on a New Zealand side playing in their country’s first ever World Cup final. After six previous semifinal defeats, Brendon McCullum’s men finally made it to the tournament’s climax after beating South Africa in a thriller on Tuesday.

But as well as New Zealand have been playing, India will hold one key advantage over their opponents should they reach the final. While India have spent so long in Australia that some have begun to joke about them receiving Australian citizenship, New Zealand have played every one of their games so far at this World Cup in their home country. Indeed. New Zealand have not played an ODI in Australia since February 2009. The wave of home support they have been riding through this World Cup so far would also be diminished and, as against Australia, it is likely that India will have the bulk of the support inside the stadium. The job of Dhoni and his team now is to ensure that those fans have plenty of cause to celebrate.