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DILEEP PREMACHANDRAN
TWELFTH MAN

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India

India will miss Zaheer’s services

Zaheer Khan

s the World Cup nears, the highlights packages targetted at the Indian viewer will doubtless focus on two campaigns – 1983 and 2011. For the younger generation, the '83 win is lost in the mists of time. Even for those of us that were around then, it seems a little unreal, that a bunch of no-hopers could upset mighty West Indies as they did at Lord's that Saturday in June.

Think about it. Balwinder Sandhu, Roger Binny, Madan Lal, Mohinder Amarnath. Kapil Dev aside, that was India's bowling attack. Even the biggest admirers of that quartet would not suggest that they were Hall of Fame quality. Things were little different in 2011, when only one bowler – Zaheer Khan – had even half-decent claims to greatness. The others, like Ashish Nehra and Munaf Patel, had their moments, but as in 1983, it was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

As we move towards February 15 and the meeting with Pakistan – India have won each of their five World Cup game against their biggest rivals – you will also get plentiful opportunities to view footage of Sachin Tendulkar's 98 at Centurion, in a showdown that was topped only by the Mohali semifinal four years ago, when he made 85 after a questionable leg-before decision and some shockingly butter-fingered catching. And in keeping with the air of nostalgia, there's bound to be a pundit or two that speaks of how much India will miss Tendulkar.

n reality, it's Zaheer that the team will miss most. In that tournament, he topped the wicket-taking charts along with Shahid Afridi, and there were several games where his interventions proved crucial. Despite scoring 338, India might not even have salvaged a tie against England but for Zaheer's inspired second spell. And the prognosis was similarly bleak against West Indies in Chennai when Zaheer produced a superb knuckle-ball to castle the well-set Devon Smith.

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Things were little different in 2011, when only one bowler – Zaheer Khan – had even half-decent claims to greatness.

With him no longer in the picture, it's Ishant Sharma that will be the experienced hand in India's attack. The same Ishant who wasn't considered a good fit for the ODI side in 2011, who has conceded 57 runs on average in the 75 matches that he's played. Bhuvneshwar Kumar could be a tidy early-overs option, but if he's not fully fit and bowling at around 130 km/hr, he will cop a hammering. Mohammed Shami takes wickets, but also goes for plenty, while Stuart Binny, like his father Roger, needs swing-friendly conditions to be effective. It's unlikely that he'll find them mid-innings in Australia.

The bigger Australian grounds will hopefully encourage the spinners to attack as well as contain, though huge question marks remain over Ravindra Jadeja's fitness. Axar Patel will get these Tri Series games to press his case in case Jadeja doesn't recover, and there is certainly incentive for Dhawal Kulkarni and Mohit Sharma – not part of the World Cup XV – as well. Should Jadeja be ruled out, the smart option would be to pick another pace bowler, not that there's a Malcolm Marshall waiting back home in domestic cricket.

The onus, as it was in 2011, will be on the batsmen to pile on the runs and chase big targets. Few in the history of the game have chased better than MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli, but the line-up around them is nothing like as settled as it was in 2011. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane are in a three-way scrap for the two opening places, and it remains to be seen whether Ambati Rayudu will be persisted with at No.3, the position from which Kohli has established himself as a modern-day legend.

Suresh Raina, after his nightmarish Test return in Sydney, will be a different proposition in coloured clothes, and whichever six batsmen India pick alongside Dhoni, bowling line-ups won't be looking forward to the prospect. On the flip side, opposition batsmen could positively relish the chance of going up against Ishant and company. The Tri Series should provide enough clues as to how much of a handicap the absence of a Kapil or Zaheer is likely to be.

 
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