1 match down, 8 to go. India have begun their World Cup 2011 campaign as they were expected to – with a comfortable win over Bangladesh – and over the next six weeks, a billion eyes will be on their squad of fifteen elite, wealthy professionals. Though this opening match was played in Bangladesh, giving their nation a rare chance to host a major sporting event, the majority of the tournament will be played in India – including the final on 2 April. In addition to home advantage, India have a star-studded batting lineup, a good balance of youth and experience and a calm, capable captain. This time, after 27 years of waiting, India will surely win the World Cup.
One cannot overstate the importance of cricket in Indian culture. The national team’s fortunes are linked to the national identity. When they win, as they did in the 1983 final, the entire country celebrates; when they lose, as they did in going out in the first round in 2007, the entire country mourns. Even down here in Kerala, where football is the most popular sport, cricket is followed with a fervour matched in no other country. (The hairy, moustachioed presence of Malayali fast bowler Sreesanth in the squad only adds to the occasion.)
Today, then, the nation will be celebrating and eagerly discussing the triumph over Bangladesh. The match was already sewn up at the end of India’s innings: 370 for 4, with hundreds for Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli. A monumental total by any standards, let alone in the opening match of a World Cup. In the end they restricted Bangladesh to 283 for 9 for a convincing 87-run win. As the tournament continues, here are 6 talking points to keep in mind:
1. Sehwag can bat for (nearly 50 overs) – with a little luck. India’s attack-minded opener somehow amassed 175 without ever looking completely on song, the swatted sixes balancing out an absurd number of awkward dinks and chips that somehow landed in space. Sehwag is the ultimate village cricketer, compensating for a near-total absence of technique with an intent to attack every ball; now that he’s marrying that to playing longer innings, it will be interesting to see whether he learns how to knock the ball around.
2. Kohli is the most dangerous batsman in India’s lineup. This kid has it all: impeccable technique, the ability to score quickly, an array of shots all around the wicket and an absolutely unshakeable confidence. Crucially, that confidence no longer spills over into cockiness as it once did. He was a little lucky with a few French cuts, but for my money his innings was more impressive than Sehwag’s – perfectly paced and full of youthful vigour. Still, it’s often hard to believe he’s still only 22 given the maturity with which he plays.
3. Sachin Tendulkar is as good as ever. The Little Master can never be ignored. He was looking as flawless as ever until he bizarrely ran himself out, and will doubtless have plenty more to contribute than his 28 today.
4. Zaheer, Harbhajan and… Munaf? The twin pillars of India’s bowling lineup over recent years have been swing bowler Zaheer Khan and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, and both were their wily selves against Bangladesh. They’ve lacked backup for a long time, but now Munaf Patel is emerging as India’s third bowling star. His performances on the recent tour of South Africa were impressive, and here he picked up four Bangladeshi wickets to cement his place in the team. There’s something of Glenn McGrath about him.
5. You could forget all the above without MS Dhoni. India’s captain-wicketkeeper-batsman didn’t have much of a role to play today, but he is the vital link in the chain. His sure hand has allowed the other hugely talented players in the squad to relax as he assuages the pressure of those billion people with sensible words on and off the ground, behind closed doors and in front of the cameras. Tendulkar has been in the form of his life over the past couple of years; it’s no accident that this period has coincided with Dhoni’s captaincy.
6. Don’t write off Bangladesh just yet. They may have lost and given up 370 runs in the process, but they did get past 280 without ever looking very solid. Even their best batsman Tamim Iqbal looked way out of touch but still got to 70, so if he hits form, opposing teams ought to be wary. Bangladesh could spring a few surprises, especially as they will play all of their group matches at home, and they have a good captain and a world-class all-rounder in Shakib Al Hasan.
It was a good start for India, and I hope that my adoptive home carry on in the same vein (unless, of course, they’re up against New Zealand). Personally, the best moments of the day came when Sreesanth was bowling. He’s the one wild card in India’s pack: utterly unplayable one ball, overstepping and shipping wides the next. To me, he looks perpetually in need of a cigarette. Even if he goes for ten an over, I hope he keeps his place purely for the entertainment value he brings.