Day of reckoning for Dhoni's men

Up against the four-time world champions, India need to raise their game today

Day of reckoning for Dhoni's men

 Big Two: Tendulkar’s form is crucial for India while Sehwag is tipped to play despite an injury. DH Photo/ Kishor Kumar BolarThe stage is as gigantic as they come -- the World Cup -- with one of the world’s two top-ranked one-day sides certain to be eliminated by Thursday night. Australia, the three-time defending champions, have a reputation to protect, a title to defend, a status to justify; second-ranked India, carrying the hopes of a billion and the prayers of many more, have a tryst to keep, a score to settle, a record to set right.

It’s a contest befitting the final; that it’s just the quarterfinal will in no way detract from the occasion, which will be magnified by 50,000 ululating fans at the Sardar Patel Gujarat stadium in Motera.

Neither side has played with the conviction – the very word Ricky Ponting used on Wednesday afternoon – that their standing and their reputation demand. Australia have been strangely diffident, not even the quality of their pace attack elevating them from relative ordinariness, while India have consistently alternated between the sublime and the ridiculous, both facets strangely linked to their batting.

When Australia and India lock horns, however, the past somehow tends to become especially irrelevant. The inherent combativeness is reflective of the respect each outfit has for the other; it is also indicative of the desire to seize the initiative early, because often, it’s the early skirmishes and the wresting of the momentum that dictates the outcome when the two behemoths clash.

Much has been made of the diminishing aura around Ponting’s team, and while it is true that the current squad doesn’t have the same giants that played such a key role in the triumphs in 1999, 2003 and 2007, there is nothing like the big stage to fire the Aussies up. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, sensible and level-headed that he is, and his team-mates know Australia are more vulnerable now than they have been for a long, long time, but they have played enough cricket against the old foes to take them lightly, or believe that victory is a mere matter of turning up at the ground.

Australia’s stuttering campaign – and that has entailed just one defeat, lest one should lose focus! – owes a fair bit to their captain’s ordinary form. Ponting has repeatedly been both the face and the soul of Australia, a domineering, self-confident force whose swagger is less bravado than substance. In this World Cup, the skipper has been in the wars, wondering where his next runs are going to come from; if India can extend his run-drought to another game, it will have been half the battle – even if only half the battle – won.

The other, more crucial, half will revolve around how well India’s famed batting might, firing only in fits and starts, negotiates the pace threat of the kind they haven’t encountered in this tournament before. South Africa provided a sneak preview through Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, but Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson are an entirely different cup of tea, each capable of bowling at 150 kmph and seriously threatening wicket and limb even on a dry, slowish surface that is unlikely to offer too much by way of bounce.

As ever, India will rely on Virender Sehwag – almost certain to play, despite Dhoni’s pronouncement that a final call will be made only on the morrow – and Sachin Tendulkar, one shy of a 100 international hundreds, to set the tone. Their annihilation of Steyn and Morkel in Nagpur was breathtaking, if not decisive; mindful of the soft underbelly that the lower middle-order is, they might be tempted to sacrifice a little bit of flamboyance, but that temptation will only be fleeting because battles are won through prudent aggression, not through apprehensive circumspection.

India have won just two of nine World Cup clashes against Australia, their last showdown, in the final in 2003, also their most depressing. This side, of steel and attitude, doesn’t however place too much emphasis on history and past records. If anything, they will draw inspiration from their 2-0 win in the tri-series finals Down Under in early 2008, a finals that hastened Tendulkar’s rebirth as a destructive one-day opener.

Teams (from): India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, R Ashwin, Munaf Patel, Suresh Raina, Ashish Nehra, Piyush Chawla, S Sreesanth.

Australia: Ricky Ponting (capt), Shane Watson, Brad Haddin, Michael Clarke, Mike Hussey, Cameron White, Steve Smith, Mitchell Johnson, Brett Lee, Shaun Tait, Jason Krejza, David Hussey, John Hastings, Callum Ferguson, Tim Paine.

Umpires: Marais Erasmus (South Africa) and Ian Gould (England). Third umpire: Richard Kettleborough (England). Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle (Sri Lanka).

INDIA

*Strengths: Easily their batting, spearheaded by the irrepressible Virender Sehwag, expected to be fit for Thursday, and the ageless Sachin Tendulkar who is batting as well as he ever has in his illustrious career. The openers have had one massive stand against South Africa, relishing the extra pace of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, and might find Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson to their liking even on a slow surface. Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh have all been in great touch, while Zaheer Khan has been both economical and incisive with the ball.

Weaknesses: Despite being in positions of great strength, India have shown a propensity to cave in even in the absence of any pressure. Their greed for big tallies on the board, perhaps given the lightness of the bowling – Zaheer excepted – has resulted in dramatic late collapses, none more stunning than the nine for 29 against South Africa in Nagpur. The bowling has struggled to impose pressure, leaving the part-timers with too much to do, while India’s fielding has been consistently below-par, only occasionally rousing itself with their backs to the wall.

AUSTRALIA

*Strengths:  Their attitude, as much as anything else. Australia have always believed in coming hard at the opposition, and in openers Shane Watson and Brad Haddin, as well as new-ball bowlers Brett Lee and Shaun Tait, they have the ideal personnel to begin both innings with aggression. Lee, Tait and Mitchell Johnson form the most potent bowling combine of the World Cup, while the return of Mike Hussey and the rare good form in one-day cricket of Michael Clarke have helped them make light of skipper Ricky Ponting’s ordinary form. Their fielding is electric but more than anything, their self-belief and the ability to perform on the big stage are unmatched.

*Weaknesses: When their quicks are even slightly off target, they can be punished badly, like even Kenya and Canada did briefly in the league phase. Spin isn’t their forte, though Jason Krejza has shown promise and Steve Smith enterprise. With the bat too, they have had their moments of uncertainty and fragility when they haven’t had too much pace or bounce to work with. Pakistan exposed their frailties against the turning ball with devastating effect, and the desire to go the other extreme and try to attack the spinners from the off might prove counter-productive.

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