Monday, June 17, 2024

T20 World Cup 2024: Can the tall Ireland pacers trouble Indian batsmen on an unknown pitch?

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The World Cup has reached the American shores, but it would take India’s tournament-opener against Ireland to breathe life into it and for the arena to gather noise and sway to the tunes of the game. The mood would be one of party, before the real deal, the supposed landscape changer, next Sunday between India and Pakistan.

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The Ireland game, thus, has the guise of a feeler, a glorified warm-up fixture, an uneven contest, in scale and stature, to excite the neutral cricket tragic. The chasm between the two are wide—India are ranked the number one in the world, whereas Ireland occupy the eleventh spot; Ireland have lost all seven of their T20I games against the more vaunted foes, who have reached at least the semifinals of the tournament on four instances, a team in red-hot form, having lost only two of their last 14 games in this format, as opposed to an erratic team that has lost eight of their last 14.

But the World Cup has a knack of cutting such linear history into ribbons, in reducing the gaps among teams; its folklore rich with stuff of fairytales. Last edition, Ireland stunned West Indies and eventual champions England; a few months ago, they upstaged the finalists, Pakistan. Last year, they ran India close, losing a pair of steep chases by merely two and four runs.

Head coach Rahul Dravid has seen enough of Ireland and life to understand the potential pitfalls of taking an underdog team lightly. “We are preparing for this match in a similar way as we are preparing for Pakistan and Australia. We know that they recently defeated Pakistan. We know that Ireland plays a lot of T20 cricket. In this format, you can’t take anyone lightly,” he said on Monday.

He could talk from experience, he was the captain when Bangladesh defeated India in the opening game of the 2007 World Cup and shoved India to the exit door. In recent times in T20 World Cups, India have struggled to hit the winning notes in opening games. Twice in the last three editions they have lost the opener. It required Virat Kohli’s finest knock in T20s to prevent a third straight defeat in the 2022 incarnation.

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Factor in a mysterious pitch and indecision on the best eleven, an upset could be stewing. Little doubt that India possesses a bowling arsenal that could blow the Irish batsmen into bits on any surface. If it swings and seams, as it did during the Sri Lanka-South Africa game, Arshdeep Singh could run amok; if it spins, Ravindra Jadeja becomes a devastating proposition; if the pitch is placid, Jasprit Bumrah and Kuldeep Yadav could still outfox batsmen with the limitless guiles. The batting line-up evokes both awe and dread, and is jewelled with batsmen of every dimension. The encompassing genius of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, the ballast of Rishabh Pant, the improvisational sorcery of Suryakumar Yadav, the brutal power of Hardik Pandya.

But if the stars twinkle, if fortune winks, Ireland have the power, poise and experience to strike hot. Mark Adair and Josh Little could move the ball both ways in the air and off the seam, when conditions ally; Craig Young generates bounce. Such a combination has tormented India’s openers, even if neither induces fear like a Shaheen Shah Afridi or Mitchell Starc or Trent Boult. Steady movement could be as deceptive as blinding pace. The Johannesburg-born all-rounder Curtis Campher is touted a game-changer, the most talented cricketer to arrive in Ireland; the spin veteran George Dockrell can apply the chokehold. Often, a lone phase, or a standout spell could define a T20 game. There is considerable all-round depth—McCarthy, slotted at No 9, has scored a half-century in this format. Seven of the first-eleven players could bowl too. It’s an ensemble cast, but sometimes they suffice for a heist.

Another aspect that could trouble India’s batsmen is the height of the bowlers. Adair is 6 feet 4; Little stands at 6 feet three; McCarthy, Campher and leg-spinner Ben White are 6 feet one; Young is 6 feet 2. Tall seamers with brisk pace could be a devilish entity if the surface abets indifferent bounce, as it did in the game between South Africa and Sri Lanka. The pitch could have been an aberration, as the drop-in wickets tend to take some time to bed in and reveal their true nature. Playing on the pitch, like the game in the country, is a leap into the unknown. Not just the deck, which became slower and spun big as the South Africa-Sri Lanka game progressed, the slow sandy outfield too is a challenge.

Pampered with belters and lightning fast outfields in IPL, India’s batsmen would have to make the required adjustments. Sure enough that they are aware and experienced, but Ireland would be lurking in the shadows ready to pounce on half a mis-step.

The sizeable Indian diaspora is expected to flock to the arena, with the tri-colour paint splashed on their face and drums in tow; the Irish fans, despite the immense immigrant spread, could be fewer, but big on enthusiasm and noise blowing out from their pipes and drums, the shirts in shamrock-print glaring proudly amidst an expected sea of blue.

Ireland’s captain termed the India game “the trickiest of all.” Rohit could repay his counterpart the exact compliment. But the larger narrative of the game would be that the arrival of India could breathe life into the World Cup, make it feel like one.

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