x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

India need Harbhajan Singh to be right on song

India have the batting to win the World Cup on home soil for the first time, but – Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan apart – do they have the bowlers?

What does it take to win a World Cup? That is the puzzle that India's cricket establishment has been trying to solve for more than two decades, ever since an unfancied team led by Kapil Dev changed the face of sport in the country back in 1983.

Subsequent World Cup campaigns have been a mixture of the good (1987, 2003), the bad (1992, 1999) and the ugly (1996, 2007).

The generation that grew up watching the Lord's heroes are now on their last legs and with one-day cricket being pushed to the fringes by its aggressive young Twenty20 cousin, this is a make-or-break tournament in more ways than one.

Having fumbled at the penultimate stage in the two previous World Cups held on the subcontinent, can India go two steps better this time, with the final to be played at Mumbai?

Despite an indifferent performance in the warm-up game against Australia, they certainly have the batting depth to win it.

Yusuf Pathan, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina may not be the finished article, but on placid pitches they are capable of inflicting as much damage as Sachin Tendulkar or Virender Sehwag.

But batting is just one aspect of it. In the only final that India have made since Kapil's halcyon summer, in 2003, it was a bowling meltdown that cost them the cup. By the end of 15 overs, Australia had 105 on the board and the Indian bowlers buckled under pressure.

But look at that tournament and the one 20 years earlier, and you will see just how the bowlers more than did their share on the way to the final.

Back in 1983, Roger Binny took 18 wickets and Madan Lal 17, while Kapil conceded less than three runs an over while taking 12. In the final, there were vital contributions from Balwinder Sandhu [that inswinger to Gordon Greenidge] and Mohinder Amarnath (three for 12).

Two decades on, it was the same story. The stereotype has India as the land of mystery spinners, but it was pace that took them to a Wanderers final.

Zaheer Khan took 18 wickets, while Javagal Srinath (16) and Ashish Nehra (15) were just as effective until Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn had their say.

With Praveen Kumar, who could swing the white ball cleverly, ruled out, where does India's attack stand on the eve of the competition? A look at their figures since the Caribbean debacle of 2007 is instructive.

Zaheer and Harbhajan Singh, the most senior and experienced bowlers, have been the most successful. Zaheer has 75 wickets from 62 games, while Harbhajan's haul is 76 from 68.

Both have economy rates of five (exactly so in Zaheer's case) or less, exceptional given that most of those matches have been on the subcontinent.

It is the support that has been the headache. Ashish Nehra has 62 wickets from 45 games, but an economy rate of 5.9 is too high for a front-line bowler.

Contrast that with Shaun Tait, the Australia fast bowler. He has played only 13 times since the last World Cup, but his 23 wickets have cost just 22.26 and he gives away only 4.83 an over.

Sreesanth, called up as replacement for Praveen, is much worse. He has been the most potent bowler, taking a wicket every 27 balls in his 24 games, but the economy rate of 6.32 suggests a man who does not always know what he is doing.

Things are no better on the spin front. Neither England nor South Africa have anything to fear from the support cast of R Ashwin and Piyush Chawla, when they have far more accomplished bowlers - Graeme Swann and Imran Tahir - in their own ranks.

If India are to win, they might have to do what Sri Lanka did in 1996, when Muttiah Muralitharan's seven wickets led a modest bowling effort, and bat like a dream.