Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dhoni stars in memorable triump

There has been an unmistakable zeal to Mahendra Singh Dhoni's leadership.

The Test side's failures against Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan had slashed expectations about the one-day side exponentially, but on the night of August 27, when a huddle of men yelled and shrieked at the Premadasa Stadium, almost everyone clapped in appreciation. For India, this 3-2 triumph, sealed by the fabulous efforts of their medium-pacers and the reliable bat of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, came against the odds.

India were the more consistent team and deserved to win the series, but it wasn't an entirely fluent triumph, as other than Dhoni and Suresh Raina, India's batsmen struggled. Gautam Gambhir, after a stellar Test series, had a thoroughly disappointing outing. He never got past the Powerplays and his attempts to take on the medium-pacers led to his downfall. Similarly for Yuvraj Singh, who poked and prodded his way to 72 runs in the series. Rohit Sharma's place will also come under scrutiny after a poor series, though he was a victim of poor umpiring on two occasions.

The extension of Dhoni's new cool, calm and collected avatar into his batting; the fluidity of Raina, who like Dhoni, refused to be overawed by spin; and the encouraging glimpses of potential shown by Virat Kohli and S Badrinath, were paramount to the win. Dhoni singled out Kohli's 159 runs as part of the growing process, and said such players needed time to settle. These were not always easy tracks to bat on, and Kohli's 55 in the fourth game and Badrinath's unbeaten 27 in the second were key innings. Both instilled confidence and saw out tough passages. Raina's handling of the spinners, and his ability to hold one end up while scoring at a good rate, was pleasing. He looks nearer to the complete package in his second coming. India have headaches about how to fill the shoes of stalwarts such as Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, and hopefully such players will step up to the task.

Sreesanth was injured and RP Singh not favoured until the dead rubber, but India's pace attack delivered. The combination of Zaheer Khan, Praveen Kumar and Munaf Patel looked exciting and achieved more than any Indian fast bowlers over the past year. The pick of the bowlers was Zaheer, who bowled splendidly in Dambulla and maintained a consistent, nagging channel at the Premadasa.

A rehabilitated Munaf's comeback series was a boon as he showed he'd worked hard on all aspects of his game. He slipped into the third seamer's role in three games and always produced breakthroughs, bowling with fire and purpose. He made the ball dart both ways and was staggeringly accurate when opening the attack.

It is early days in his captaincy, but is it a coincidence that under Dhoni, India have won the inaugural World Twenty20, their first trophy in Australia for 22 years, and their first ever series in Sri Lanka?

After a dismal Asia Cup, Praveen bowled with heart and was in the wickets in all games except one. Irfan Pathan had to make way for Praveen in three matches but with the trio working as a unit, India managed with four specialist bowlers. Harbhajan Singh kept it simple, varying his pace and flight, and remained steady without being threatening. He didn't have much to do given how successful the pacers were. Pragyan Ojha, the left-arm spinner, bowled craftily in the final game.

After dropping catches like hotcakes during the Asia Cup, India's fielding was efficient, bar the last game when they missed run-outs and conceded overthrows. Dhoni maintained his standards behind the stumps and the bowlers were mostly adept at saving runs off their own bowling. Badrinath took a good catch on debut, Kohli pulled off some good stops - though he dropped a relatively straightforward catch off Jayasuriya at cover - and Munaf and Praveen covered good distance in the deep to save boundaries. Yuvraj, far from the livewire he once was due to a nagging knee injury, was shuffled around in the field and didn't always impress. Rohit was good at backward point.

It is almost inconceivable that India could have won without Dhoni, Man of the Series and now the No. 1 ODI batsman in the world. He was reliable with bat and gloves all series, and his overall presence was immense. It is early days in his captaincy, but is it a coincidence that under Dhoni, India have won the inaugural World Twenty20, their first trophy in Australia for 22 years, and their first ever ODI series in Sri Lanka?

Zaheer Khan was the pick of the Indian bowlers.

Dhoni has spoken enthusiastically about the potential of the young players in the team (nine of the 15 in the ODI squad are 25 or under, two are 26, the oldest is 29). India have been compelled to invest in youth, and a bit of the pain of losing the Test series has been wiped away by the success in the one-dayers.

Three years ago, after India thumped Sri Lanka 5-1 at home, it appeared their captain and coach were on the same page, keeping their options open and relying on flexibility with an eye on the 2007 World Cup. Then they lost series in the West Indies and South Africa, and that rose-tinted picture ended in flames after India crashed out in the first round of cricket's biggest tournament. The momentum had been lost.

Since then, though, Dhoni has batted splendidly and captained with a tactical finesse not always known in Indian cricket. There has been an unmistakable zeal to his leadership and importantly, his young wards have responded to it. The trick is to maintain the intensity. Three wins on the trot in tough conditions is commendable, but tougher challenges are in store. England, Pakistan and New Zealand will set entirely different challenges; only then can this win be better assessed.

Fans of Indian cricket will hope the recent upswing under Dhoni, like the surge during the 2003 World Cup - which came on the heels of a thrashing in New Zealand - is no aberration. There is a sense that this young side will not entirely follow the course of previous sides.