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In India vs Pakistan, you canít win unless youíre willing to tempt defeat

Harsha Bhogle

Posted: Dec 30, 2011 at 1256 hrs IST
      

: In my formative years in cricket, the influencer years, a game against Pakistan was never a day of joy, of excitement; rarely was there a sense of anticipation at seeing something exceptional. It was a game that your team had to win and so it was a tense day; a delectable cover drive or a glide behind square played artistically was a thing of beauty only if played by the person with the right identity. It was a terrible way to watch sport.

And as happens inevitably, the team that is more tense, more coiled up, is more vulnerable; the team that is obsessed with not losing almost always does. You cannot win unless you are willing to tempt defeat and Pakistan, the gamblers who backed themselves, won more as a result than they lost. Except for a phase between 1984 and 1985, a close match always went away.

Then 2004 happened and we began to see a new Indian player on the horizon; fearless, confident, willing to live for the day and for whom a shot was a calculated gamble, not a risk-free effort. In the five years since, this new breed is the face of Indian cricket and I saw that demonstrated on Wednesday at The Oval when a cricket match that might have been classified as tense, as a must-win game in another era, was transformed into an almost cavalier exhibition of strokeplay; the bat, in the hands of Rohit Sharma, was powered by timing and self-belief, the fear of making a mistake erased by the anticipation of a good shot. It is a critical difference in the mind.

I have long felt, and it is a view that the international cricket community subscribes to, that Rohit Sharma is a very rare, a very special talent. Still only a young man, he has had time to learn, to make mistakes on the field, even occasionally to experience the impact of a touch of cockiness. His selection two or three years ago was one of many excellent ones by the selection committee under Dilip Vengsarkar. Knowing when to pick is a key element in developing talent and I believe Sharma is now benefitting from having been selected at the right time, early.

There is a fear that he sometimes gets carried away and plays shots that he might just have held back a touch. It is a poor argument because it is based on hindsight. At 55 from 30 balls, we would applaud a six as a sign of confidence but berate him for recklessness if the same shot landed a metre short. With Sharma, as with Raina and Sehwag and Yuvraj and Gambhir, you sit back and enjoy, not get frustrated because they are not playing the way you want them to. It is a different generation; ideas of restraint and conformity and frugality have long been replaced, having a dark side is not worth a sleepless night, the first ball can be hit over mid-wicket from just behind a good length.

I still believe India are the batting side of the tournament, with South Africa and Australia just there, but there is still a dependence on a good start. That is why the continued absence of Sehwag is a bit worrisome. And India have problems with the ball, in the first few overs and the last two or three. Against Pakistan almost 85 were leaked in 7 overs at either end of the innings and Dhoni now has to find two finishers. His best bowler so far, Ishant Sharma, hasnít always seemed to relish bowling at the death and there is no swing for Irfan Pathan and RP Singh. When those two bowl in straight lines, they are half the bowlers they are when they bowl in curved lines. The length ball that swings is a good one, the length ball that doesnít is one for the scorer.

Pakistan, on the other hand, have issues to resolve. They need a settled top three, they need to wipe the dust of their gem, Sohail Tanvir, who is bowling as if he has never heard of the Rajasthan Royals, they need Misbah-ul-Haq in the top four and for Shahid Afridi to bat for longer than a commercial break. But Mohammad Amir looked very promising, irrespective of the age he assigns to himself (that is one area in which young Indian and Pakistani players are in complete agreement!) and Ahmed Shahzad can bat with delightful freedom.

Watch out though for Australia and South Africa. The peculiarity of the tournament means the top three teams in the tournament are in the same half and if those two go the distance, it means India has gone out early!

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