Winless tour leaves champs India vulnerable

NEW DELHI: Loaded with free-stroking batsmen but missing match-winning bowlers, Mahendra Singh Dhoni´s India will look to chase down — rather than defend — the World Cup title they won four years ago.

But a miserable bilateral tour of Australia where India lost the Test series 2-0 and failed to win a match in the tri-series that also featured England, leaves the defending champions on shaky ground.

Millions of fans will hope that Dhoni´s men turn their fortunes around — as they have done in the past — when they clash with arch-rivals Pakistan in their World Cup opener in Adelaide on February 15.

India went into the 2003 World Cup after a bad tour of New Zealand and still reached the final. In 2011, they won the tournament despite a lacklustre performance in South Africa.

In Rohit Sharma, the only batsman with two 200s in one-day internationals, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina and the explosive Dhoni, India possess destructive batting firepower.

But the frail bowling attack remains a worry, as was evident during the recent Test series where the hosts piled up 500-plus totals in each of the four matches.

The same seam attack comprising Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav, will feature in the World Cup alongside three frontline spinners in off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and left-armers Ravindra Jadeja and young Akshar Patel.

“Big totals are needed to win,” India´s first World Cup-winning captain Kapil Dev told AFP. “We will be better off chasing targets rather than giving bowlers a target to defend.”

India won the title under Dhoni in 2011 with an experienced squad that included seasoned campaigners like Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh.

The present side has just four players — Dhoni, Kohli, Raina and Ashwin — who were part of that winning combination, leaving the team short of World Cup experience.

The nucleus of the squad is the same which helped India win the Champions Trophy one-day tournament in England in 2013, but a power-packed batting display is needed to succeed again.

Rohit Sharma, who followed his one-day 209 against Australia in 2013 with a scintillating world record score of 264 against the West Indies last year, is expected to fire at the top of the order despite a poor Test series.

Kohli, recently appointed Test captain after Dhoni quit the longer format, is one of the finest batsmen in the modern game with 21 one-day centuries in the last five years, a testimony of his hunger for big scores.

Dhoni, the peg around whom India´s fortunes will revolve, is a leader and batsman tailor-made for limited-overs cricket whose improvised big-hitting has won many a battle for India.

A win over Pakistan in their opening match — India have never lost to their arch-rivals in the World Cup — will be the tonic Dhoni needs to revitalise the side.