Even though both teams have qualified for the next stage, they have all to play for and will look to have their playing combinations settled
Purely from a qualifying perspective, Sunday’s encounter at the R Premadasa Stadium holds very little interest. But while England and India might both have sealed Super Eights berths, there will be all to play for in the final Group A league clash of the ICC World Twenty20 2012.
England, the defending champion, made its intent clear on Friday with a comprehensive all-round performance against Afghanistan, the same team which ran India ragged two nights earlier. Another dominating performance against the ICC World Twenty20 2007 champion will extend England’s winning run to five Twenty20 games on the trot – including in warm-up fixtures against Australia and Pakistan – and set itself up nicely for the Super Eight stage of the competition.
While it’s all bright and sunny in the English camp, India has multiple problems to grapple with. Uppermost has to be the recent unedifying form of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, its two experienced openers, and Zaheer Khan, the bowling spearhead who hasn’t found the going easy in the later stages of the innings.
Sunday’s game against England will be one of four demanding assignments on the trot, leading into the semifinals, for Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men. Given that the match doesn’t have any tangible stake – points are not carried forward to the Super Eights – it offers Dhoni the perfect opportunity to not merely iron out the kinks, but also ensure that the bench gets some game time and is match fit if it is required to come in at any stage during the next phase.
Dhoni acknowledged on Saturday that there would be changes to the playing XI, also in a bid to work out the best fifth specialist bowling option. Typically, he stopped short of listing out the changes, but it is almost certain that at least two, if not all three, of Harbhajan Singh, Ashok Dinda and Manoj Tiwary will figure in Sunday’s scheme of things.
The big dilemma in the Indian camp must be what course of action to adopt when it comes to Sehwag and Zaheer. Both men gave Saturday’s optional training session at the P Sara Oval the miss, though not too much can be read into that. Perhaps, a game away will reinvigorate them and they will come back refreshed for the crucial second phase. Then again, no one can score runs or take wickets sitting in the dressing room.
Zaheer has illustrated often in the past that he is a rhythm bowler who gets better with more overs in a game situation under his belt. Expected to set the tone for Indian bowling stints, he has disappointed in the last few games and particularly towards the last fourth of the innings when his predictability has become his greatest bugbear. India needs Zaheer fit and firing on all cylinders if it entertains thoughts of going all the way. It was therefore no surprise to hear Dhoni state that the team would give Zaheer every opportunity to rediscover himself, though whether that opportunity will include Sunday’s game is open to question.
Sehwag’s is an equally intriguing scenario. His game would appear ideally suited to the Twenty20 format but it’s in this version, especially at the international level, that he has had his problems. He was hit on his right thumb during Friday's practice by a local bowler and while news from the Indian camp is that he has made a complete recovery, he might just be rested to make completely sure that he doesn’t get another knock on the same finger again. Such is his reputation and his match-turning abilities that India will continue to back him almost to a fault, in the hope that sooner rather than later, Sehwag will repay the faith.
While India will stay on in Colombo for the Super Eights, England will travel to Pallekele, and a smaller ground. With that too in mind, it will also ring the odd change or two, but the core group is set to remain unaltered. As much as Luke Wright’s brilliant 99, England has taken heart from the positivity of Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow in the middle order, and is flush with the knowledge that it has men coming in at No. 9 capable of ‘clearing the ropes at will’, as Stuart Broad put it.
Entrusted with a young squad, Broad won’t have to grapple with trying to impress upon his team the need to keep its intensity going. There is, after all, a title to defend, and the road ahead will be strewn with thorns.