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DILEEP PREMACHANDRAN
TWELFTH MAN

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India

Stuart Binny could be India’s key man

Stuart Binny could prove to India’s trump card . PTI

The last time the World Cup was played in Australia and New Zealand, India's cricketers spent four months in the country. By the time they exited the competition, with just two wins to show from eight matches – the encounter against Sri Lanka in Mackay was washed out – they had played 23 international games since arriving in Australia in mid-November.

Some in the current generation have already been in Australia for two months. If they reach the World Cup final, their stay would also have taken in four months, but just 17 matches. Some things certainly are better in the present day. Back in 1991-92, the scheduling was the work of some lunatic. A Test match first, then five ODIs followed by two Tests, then five more ODIs including the Tri Series finals, two more Tests and then the World Cup. If the players looked jaded, or even partly disinterested by the end of it all, who could blame them?

Fatigue is much less of a factor this time round mainly because the Tri Series followed a sane six-game format before Sunday's final between Australia and England. India lost two relatively close games, to Australia in Melbourne and England in Perth, and were soundly thrashed by Eoin Morgan's side in Brisbane. A washout in Sydney meant that they finished the pre-World Cup engagements without a single win, having lost the Test series 2-0.

Even in 1999-2000, when the team Sachin Tendulkar led were so poor that Jaywant Lele, then board secretary, was caught predicting a 3-0 rout, India didn't go winless. There was a consolation win against Pakistan in the Tri Series. Just as that group, most of whom had never played in Australia before, struggled, so too have this bunch under MS Dhoni.

The 50-over outfit may be world champions and Champions Trophy holders, but their recent record in the southern hemisphere has been atrocious. A 4-0 spanking in New Zealand followed a 2-0 loss in South Africa in late 2013. The three defeats in this Tri Series have taken the record in the last 18 months to nine losses in 12 games. There hasn't been a single win. A tie in New Zealand was as good as it's got.

On slow pitches where the ball grips and turns, India have somehow managed to overcome the two new balls and the fielding restrictions that make it nearly impossible to bowl part-timers. But when the slow bowlers are not a factor, the bowling becomes almost about damage control, especially given how erratic the pace bowlers can be.

In one outing in Perth, Mohit Sharma showed just how the selectors might have erred by not picking him in the World Cup squad. He bowled at sprightly pace and was impressively accurate with his lines and lengths. He offered the sort of control that it has been almost impossible to expect from the other pace bowlers.

In helpful conditions, as in Perth, he’s canny enough a bowler to be a handful. But when there’s not much encouragement from the conditions, his lack of pace could prove extremely costly.

In better bowling sides, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami might have been true wicket-taking assets. But in a team that leaks runs, they're expensive luxuries. R Ashwin will be expected to bottle up one end, but it remains to be seen if Ravindra Jadeja, just back from injury, will be able to do the same.

The key man could well be Stuart Binny. In helpful conditions, as in Perth, he's canny enough a bowler to be a handful. But when there's not much encouragement from the conditions, his lack of pace could prove extremely costly. India already seem two bowlers light because of the fitness travails of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma, and they can ill afford failures from the batting stalwarts like Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina.

The World Cup itinerary is such that India will undoubtedly qualify for the last eight. Going beyond that will require a drastic reversal of fortune though. The team of 1992 couldn't manage it. Time will tell if Dhoni's side can.

 
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