Three weeks into the World Cup, the halo around Mahendra Singh Dhoni seems to be disappearing. The captain who could do no wrong is now appearing mortally flawed; and this, despite having lost only one match.
It’s not the happiest of situations to be in, and Dhoni could be excused for being bewildered at the fickleness of fans and critics, that is, if he is not inured to the ways of Indian cricket where passion overrules all else—particularly reason.
For the record, as I write this, Australia remain the only unbeaten team in the tournament yet, but not without their share of problems, if the struggle to beat Kenya the other day is any indication. All other teams have been on a roller-coaster ride.
Testing times: By now, Dhoni will have come to realize that the tag of ‘favourite’ is often just hype. AP
In defence of the Indian team and its captain, therefore, I would urge the doubters and sceptics to lay off just yet. This has been a topsy-turvy tournament, which only the hopelessly myopic or the irrationally jingoistic would overlook.
For instance, England tied with India, then beat South Africa, who beat India, who beat Ireland, who beat England, who also surprisingly lost to Bangladesh, who were thrashed by the West Indies, who in turn were mauled by South Africa… I’ve almost run out of breath writing that, but you get the drift. If there is a pattern that has emerged in the tournament—and especially in Group B, which has the teams mentioned above—it is of upsets and setbacks frequently dotting run-of-the-mill results.
In this context, Group A has been more stable, but here too there have been some interesting results. Pakistan, for instance, overcame the highly favoured Sri Lanka with surprising ease, but got a walloping from New Zealand who, in turn, had been routed by Australia, and so on.
The big difference between the two groups has been the utterly abject performance of the so-called minnows in Group A (Kenya, Zimbabwe, Canada), while in Group B, both Bangladesh and Ireland have been able to throw a spanner in the works of the established sides. Some tension and suspense still lingers in Group B, which should be played out by the weekend, the marquee match obviously being between India and the West Indies in Chennai on Sunday. If India win this, a place in the quarter-finals is assured. For all practical purposes, that’s when the tournament really starts.
But I’m getting ahead of this week’s issue, which is of India’s staccato performances and Dhoni’s influence as captain. As mentioned at the beginning, I am averse to knee-jerk condemnation of the team for one slipped performance, especially in the league phase. Nevertheless, there are areas of concern that Dhoni would do well to address.
The loss to South Africa at Nagpur obviously triggered the widespread scepticism. This was a match that India should have won in a canter after the rousing start provided by Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. The collapse from 267 for 1 to 296, all out, was inexplicable and ignominious. India’s famed middle order went about the task of consolidation like ageing, blinded cowboys shooting in the dark, trying to scare away the enemy, rather than sharp-shooters primed for their job and at the peak of their prowess.
Barring the match against Bangladesh, when every batsman got runs, in the others the performances have been skewed. While the manner of defeat against South Africa was shocking, it could be seen as a one-off. But when juxtaposed with the performances in earlier matches, even when India won, it throws up several questions about the batting.
If not quite as melodramatic as against South Africa, India’s collapse against England in the tied match was also diabolical. The bottom fell out and instead of getting 360 or thereabouts, India got 338. The victories against Ireland and the Netherlands—while appearing facile in the score books—were not without trouble.
The point I want to make is that while India have not done badly overall in terms of results, they seem to fizzle out in crunch moments in a game. This is where the captain plays the major role. He has to decide tactics, and even a great pre-match game plan has to be revised during play if things start going haywire.
Against South Africa, for instance, if 375 looked difficult to reach after Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Yusuf Pathan, Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli had fallen, it was incumbent on Dhoni, who was batting in the middle, to ensure that the team reached 320-325 and played out its full quota of overs. But the tail tried to bat with greater abandon than the middle.
In his choice of bowler, too, for the last over against South Africa, I thought Dhoni blundered. Harbhajan Singh, having taken three wickets, looked clearly the better bet, but Dhoni went for Ashish Nehra, who was having an off-day, and paid the price.
The strong gut, a feel for the unconventional, which has earned him renown as captain seemed to desert him—not just in choosing Nehra, but also in the composition of the team. It must seem strange that South Africa chose two specialist spinners and India only one.
The great thing about hindsight is that it offers 20-20 vision. I maintain that India are a fine side, but not invincible. Apart from the wobbly bowling and poor fielding, there are issues too with the batting, otherwise considered unimpeachable. By now, Dhoni will have come to realize that the tag of “favourite” is often just hype; that the champion teams are those that play well consistently, and more specially, win the big moments in a match. For India, every match from here has to be treated like a final. Maybe that’s just the pressure the team needs to come into its own.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org