Cricket World Cup semi-final: Can India beat Australia?

An Indian fan waves a national flag as India plays Bangladesh in the World Cup quarter-final match at the MCG in Melbourne, Australia, 19 March 2015 Image copyright EPA
Image caption After a poor run-up to the World Cup, Indian expectations have been raised by seven straight wins

If cricketing logic were all that mattered, then top-ranked Australia would be guaranteed a place in the final of the World Cup.

Luckily - and this is what makes sport so attractive - logic does not always decide the outcome.

Since 1979, when the West Indies won their last title, logic has triumphed four times and there have been upsets four times.

India winning in 1983 was an upset. India winning in 2011 was logical.

Considering their shabby performance in the build-up, India have already exceeded expectations in this tournament; as the semi-finals approach, however, expectations have galloped forward again.

The Indian team is now expected to catch up with those expectations, and if one were to take the media pundits and former cricketers seriously, that is a mere formality.

Not been tested

The ease with which India came through their pool games might work against them. They have not really been tested. Their batsmen haven't had to struggle, the bowlers haven't had to change tactics at short notice, nor have they been pushed to the wall as a unit.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni (right) has led the Indian team with vigour

A walk in the park is no preparation for a mountain climb.

That is not the team's fault, of course. You can only play the opposition that turns up, and if your matches before the semi-final are against the UAE, West Indies, Ireland, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, then that is merely the roll of the dice.

In 1983, when they first won, India crept into the final almost unnoticed. The one dramatic outing was against Zimbabwe, where thanks to skipper Kapil Dev's 175, they recovered from 17 for four to win by 31 runs.

The next time they won, 28 years later, many of the engine's obvious problems - fielding, spin bowling, for example - were fixed in the running, so to speak.

In neither year did they top the pool in the preliminary stage.

This time, however, they have been the team to watch once they got past Pakistan and South Africa.

There has been an inevitability about their victories that has suggested to many that perhaps the wait for a third World Cup will not be 28 years.

But it will not be easy for India.

India's strength

Well as their pace attack has performed, claiming 42 of 70 wickets as India bowled out seven teams in a row, it is still a rung below the firepower the Australians can unleash.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption India overcame Bangladesh in the quarter-final, their seventh straight win in this year's tournament

Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood (or Pat Cummins) threaten both body and technique in a manner that Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma don't.

Pakistan might have suggested in the quarter-final that the Australian top order is vulnerable to the short-pitched delivery.

India have claimed 60% of their victims in this World Cup with such bowling. But if the tactic does not work against Australia, Plan B will have to be put into place fairly quickly. Since the game is being played on a spin-friendly pitch in Sydney, that might mean an early call-up for off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.

The victorious team of 2011 might have been more experienced - Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh - but this younger side seems to have a clearer sense of its job description.

This is probably a tribute to team director Ravi Shastri and the assistant coaches Sanjay Bangar and Bharati Arun, although one assumes there is input from Duncan Fletcher too.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption India will be facing hosts and favourites Australia in the semi-final on Thursday

This awareness of each player's role in the team has provided a bonus: the confidence that when one or two fail, there is always someone ready to make up for it. This is the hallmark of successful teams, and something Australia, for instance, have always been known for.

In two other areas, India's approach has provided cheer. Their fielding has been excellent, and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni has led with vigour.

Against that must be weighed the fact that Australia are playing at home, that they bat deep, with such terrific strikers of the ball as Glenn Maxwell and James Faulkner set to bat in the bottom half, and that they have been lording it over India since November last year when the India team landed on their shores for a Test series followed by a one-day tri-series.

Perhaps that is an Indian strength too - the fact they have been in Australia for so long that at least one opponent has suggested the players should apply for citizenship!

It is glib to say that the winners of the Australia-India semi-final will be favourites to win the World Cup.

If Australia beat India, then they will start as favourites.

If India go through, they will be that much misunderstood entity: the second favourites in a cup final against a team that has never been in a final before.

That is a whole different set of dynamics.

Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack

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