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All the Captain’s Men

The ICC Cricket World Cup draws ever closer. Teams are being announced and players, past and present, are handing out threats and predictions in equal measure.

As the Cup comes home (or our home, India at least), the sub-continental teams are touted as favourites but none as much as the Men in Blue (or Nike’s recycled plastic bottles in colours that resemble the Sri Lankan squad). And while all players are equally responsible for this, major credit should go to their Captain Cool. Let me elucidate.

Today, the Indian squad holds the No. 1 and No. 2 positions in the ICC Test and ODI rankings respectively. This is just a reflection of the consistency of this side. A side that was famed for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has in fact today turned the tables on the team that is arguably as big a choker as India in close games. What the Indians have shown over the past couple of years is tenacity and the attitude to push the door open all the way once they get a foot in. These are characteristics that were never associated with Indian cricket. Yes there were greats like Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and many more but they were men of individual brilliance who on a special day/occasion could completely outclass their opposition and win matches single-handedly for the team. They were the match winners. But when the chips were down, the Indian team famously retreated into its shell, often caving in and capitulating in a pressure situation. We dreamt of seeing the guys putting in a fight ala Australia – defending low scores and chasing down mammoth scores with equal panache.

The wheels for this side were set rolling in the famous times of Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly. Most of the seniors in the current team are players who, as youngsters, found favour with one of the greatest Indian captains. Ganguly, it would seem, had a nose for potential. Sehwag, Harbhajan, Zaheer, M.S.Dhoni… they are all from that crop of players who were blooded as youngsters in difficult series against tough opposition including Australia and South Africa at home. The inexperience probably cost India a couple of series wins but it was sowing the seeds for the future. Today, we reap the rewards.

Having said that, Ganguly only built the core. After a couple of non-descript captaincy campaigns from Messrs Dravid and Kumble, the BCCI Selection Committee finally decided to hand over the captain’s cap to a young wicketkeeper, MS Dhoni. And what a course changing decision that was. As Captain Cool marshalled his young troops around the perilous world of International cricket, many detractors vented their feelings. His predecessor, Sourav Ganguly went to the extent of calling him a “gambler”. And then in September 2007, the young captain and his team announced their arrival on the international platform in grand style – by securing the first ICC World Twenty20. It was a World Cup albeit a T20 one. Some called it a fluke while others the high point in the career of a captain who was living on the edge. And who could blame them. No sane captain would hand the ball to a non-descript bowler to bowl the final over when a rampaging Misbah-ul-Haq had already dispatched his main bowlers Harbhajan and Sreesanth for as many as five sixes in the last couple of overs. His decision was, however, vindicated when the bowler delivered the goods for his captain as a desperate Misbah-ul-Haq played a ball straight to Sreesanth who gleefully accepted the catch. The reign of Captain Cool had begun!

Since then, the team and its able captain have moved from strength to strength knocking down records and history on the way. The Indian side had always been good on paper but now it was translating the potential to match winning performances. And the victories were coming not through individual brilliance but a bunch of guys sticking in till the end not willing to give up. All credit should go to the captain who never let a shadow cross his face even in the direst moments. More than once while looking down the barrel he made decisions that would go on to change the course of the game. Inspired and often daring bowling changes were made and the team got itself into a winning habit. Teams visiting India were subjected to high intensity cricket and more than one side cracked under the pressure as the Indians continued racking up victory after victory. Their crowning glory was being crowned the Number 1 Test side in the world on 5 December 2010. The team of youngsters had finally climbed to the top. Defeating Australia in Australia and then fighting it out from one down to win the home series against Australia and South Africa and then running through New Zealand. And then came their litmus test. The newly crowned World champs had to travel to the Rainbow Nation to take on the formidable Proteas in their own backyard. A baptism by fire awaited the team.

The eve of the first test match was a disastrous note to the campaign with the Indian bowling suffering a crushing blow through the loss of their frontline bolwer Zaheer. Zak has over the past few years established himself as a force to be reckoned with, bowling a difficult line even on unfriendly pitches and producing prodigious reverse swing with the old ball. The Indians played without their talismanic bowler and were unsurprisingly crushed by an inning. The wolves were already baying for blood – of the skipper and the players alike. Pundits raised question marks over the ranking of the team and detractors found reason to moan, quickly labelling the Indians as tigers in their own backyards but pushovers on pace wickets abroad. Interestingly, the same people who called the dust bowls prepared for Australia at Nagpur and South Africa at Ahmedabad earlier in the year “unsporting” wickets were now busy calling out the Indians blissfully ignoring the “unsportsman”like nature of the green top at Centurion Park.

Going into the second test India had to salvage their pride and the test series. This gained further importance considering that it was the last series before the upcoming World Cup. They and their supporters took heart from the return of Zaheer from the injury to the side. The test match got off to an equally bad if not worse start when India were meekly bundled out for 205 runs. As the media went into a frenzy trying to predict how many days it would take for the hosts to demolish the team this time, Dhoni’s men got their heads down to defend their mediocre total. In an inspired session of bowling from the seamers led by Zaheer Khan, India turned the match around bowling out the host side for a mere 131 runs securing a lead in the first innings in the process. Though the batting did not click in the second innings either, they did enough to get runs on the board and then left it to the bowlers to do their job. The bowlers’ response did not disappoint as they took wickets and secured the win for India. Many had described the Indian bowling attack as mediocre and incapable of taking 20 opposition wickets in a match. They had been silenced. Though the series was drawn at the end of the third test, India had the moral victory having come back from the brink to level the series. As they moved to the shorter version of the game, India carried forward the momentum and brushed aside the Protean challenge in the single T20 fixture. And then they ran into the brick wall. Both their star openers were injured and they were forced to fall back on the dependable Tendulkar to do the job. The first ODI saw India’s bowling attack being dissected and under pressure the batting crumbled to give South Africa a huge 135 run victory. People went back to saying that the team always promised to deceive. Many, yours truly included, questioned the timing of this one day series with respect to the upcoming World Cup at home. A popular opinion was that the schedule of the South Africa and New Zealand series should have been interchanged. The second ODI came around and the batting failed again. In the absence of the big guns, Sachin alone could not do enough and a fighting half-century from Yuvraj Singh was not enough to put India past 200 runs. Many took the defeat as a foregone conclusion and switched back to their regular prime time shows and soaps. And in truth, SA were cruising with captain Graeme Smith leading proceedings ably assisted by deVilliers. And then, as many times before it, Dhoni made the fortuitous bowling change. An expensive over purchased him the wicket of deVilliers. In the next few overs, the rejuvenated bowling attack surged to strike telling blows to the batting. The noose was tightened with the dismissal of the captain himself and suddenly South Africa were under pressure. With the experienced Amla already out and the veteran Kallis sidelined through injury, the middle order looked weak. The Indian bowlers kept asking questions with their bowling and were justly rewarded for their efforts as the South African side collapsed. 6 wickets for 37 runs secured the victory for India by one run. A near impossible feat given the low score and the reputation of the bowling attack.

The third match was also a low scoring affair taken to the brink. Again the bowling came good, limiting the host side to 220 runs but the Indian top order, further weakened by Sachin’s absence due to injury, collapsed. South Africa seemed to be gaining the upper hand with India losing five wickets with the score only in double digits. With a mountain to climb, India’s latest hero walked in. Swinging the bat around like a sword, Yusuf Pathan insolently carted bowlers around the park. A quick half century brought India within kissing distance but the hero fell with the job half done. Very quickly the Indian tail was exposed to the wily South African bowling and it looked like a lost cause when India’s pseudo-all rounder Harbhajan took charge of proceedings and with Zaheer Khan and Nehra stitched together two handy partnerships to carry the team across the finish line. Another gritty battle where the Indians held their nerve. To all the people who say that South Africa were weak without Jacques Kallis, I would like to point out the absence of Sehwag, Gambhir and now Tendulkar who are mainstays of Indian batting.

Over the past few series, India have displayed the grittiness associated with a champion side. And it comes in no small part from the captain’s attitude. Very few situations flummox him and rarely does he show emotion on face. A picture of calm on the field, he brings a similar calmness to the other players. Time and again, when asked about any particular game, Dhoni has always responded by saying that he does not care about records and that every game is equally important to him. This takes the pressure off the team for what are billed as the “big games”. They perform to their potential and hang in for the result. This is what separates them from the teams that have gone before them. The team’s performance in the face of adversity has displayed amply its character and fighting spirit. Yes they may not be as ruthless as the Australian champion sides before them but this bunch of Indians sure has no shortage of guts. As a British tabloid remarked, the Indians are not ‘dominating champions’ ala Australia, they are ‘fighting champions’. But that’s what makes it all the more exciting when teams feel that they have a chance against the side. A match that is fought down to the last ball and the last run. Throughout his captaincy, Dhoni has destroyed stereotypes. He has made bold and often unconventional moves to both outplay and outclass oppositions from around the world. Records have tumbled and he has achieved feats that no other team has ever achieved.

Graeme Smith himself acknowledged after the second test match at Durban that this Indian side was different from other sides before it. They bounced back and did not shy away from a fight. But perhaps the greatest accolades for them came from one of the greats of South African cricket history, paceman Shaun Pollock. Pollock, while commentating in a match, remarked that he would not fancy playing against this Indian side because they showed the willingness and determination to fight till the very end.

Here’s wishing the boys great success in their present South African campaign. They stand on the cusp of an unprecedented ODI series win in South Africa as they go 2-1 up into the 4th ODI. And of course all the best for the World Cup. Hoping that I get to see the Indians lift the World Cup this time. After all it is the last time that the Master would play the tournament and it seems really unfair that after 21 years and many accomplishments he still doesn’t have the ultimate prize in his closet. Come on guys do it this time! If not for anybody else, for the guy who has played for India ever since you all were wee little kids…

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  1. Vikas Shetty
    21 January 2011 at 17:09 IST

    This man has something within him which has an amazing effect on the team… the Srs, the Jrs in the team seem to respond to his call and respect him… it is not a team with extraordinary talent but yes extraordinary grit…

    • 21 January 2011 at 17:11 IST

      Yeah that’s why I mentioned people like Gavaskar and Kapil Dev who were solo performers as opposed to these guys who are actually performing as a team. More than a sum of their parts so to speak

  2. 21 January 2011 at 18:08 IST

    Let’s wait for the World Cup and see if it comes back home or not. It is like Running the first laps fast and then slackening speed to lose the final sprint always.

    • 21 January 2011 at 18:44 IST

      Please don’t say that!

  3. Shashank G. Sawant
    23 January 2011 at 00:07 IST

    That’s a cool post!
    Dhoni’s part is often under-rated, but if results continue to pile up, history will be fair to him.

    • 23 January 2011 at 00:52 IST

      I doubt it. Inspite of Ganguly’s success, all that people remember is that he was arrogant. Public perception is a very difficult thing to change especially when it comes to cricket.
      And thanks for the compliment.

      • Maa
        6 March 2011 at 01:42 IST

        Ganguly was arrogant or aggressive? I would say, he had “killer instinct. He would just not tolerate anything that came in the way of the team’s victory.

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