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The Nagpur Nightmare Can Haunt India

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In the build-up to India’s most-crucial Group stage clash, captain MS Dhoni in his pre-match talk a day before stressed on the importance of a start from the trio at the top that could then allow the explosive middle-order to play its A-game. “If we have slightly longer partnerships at the top, the explosive power of our middle and lower-middle order can be used more in the positive way,” he said.

Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, and Virat Kohli form the technically-accomplished core of India’s top order and Sehwag as a devastating plunderer completes the picture. On Saturday, when India came out to bat in front of a full house the tension in the atmosphere was palpable. Sehwag hit a boundary off the first ball and was then beaten a couple of times in the opening over by Steyn. Morkel came from the other end as Tendulkar took guard to face his first ball of the match. Unlike Sehwag, the Master betrayed no nerves and played his first ball on the up, right under his eyes, with his front foot movement so precise that it looked calibrated to the last millimetre. He opened his account with a single of that first ball and Sehwag was back on strike. The third ball took the edge and went slightly to the right of van Wyk, who couldn’t move a muscle as the ball raced to the fence and Sehwag got a reprieve.

Morkel was bowling with good speed and extracting disconcerting bounce making it difficult for Sehwag but Steyn leaked runs from the other end. Lance Klusener had said the previous day that playing at home India would feel the heat but it was the South Africans who looked dazed at the start. A regulation catch was dropped in the second over and the third over went for 14 with an overthrow that cost five and a huge wide by Steyn another five. Morkel overstepped in his second over and was lucky India couldn’t cash in on the free hit. It was a frenetic start despite Morkel keeping things tight by giving just 9 of his first two overs.

The momentum shifted decisively in Morkel’s third and the innings’ sixth over when the floodgates opened with three hits to the fence. At the end of 5 overs India had 33 on the board and they leaped to 70 in just three more overs with the help of eight boundaries; Morkel conceding six of them in his two overs. At the end of 15 overs the scoreboard read 128 for no loss; Sehwag was 62 in 54 balls and Tendulkar was 57 in just 37 balls.

On the big stage of a pressure game Tendulkar was at his absolute best and it is difficult to describe how beautifully and brilliantly he batted from that first ball onwards. It was a knock that had the stamp of inevitability. He knew he was going to get the runs and if getting them had meant dodging bullets he would have done that and yet stood his ground. Even by the lofty standards of the Master this was a special knock in a crunch game where the nerves could have been frayed at the start. A commentator reflected on the first 25 overs or so saying that amidst all the commotion at the centre—where catches slipped, the South Africans conceded extra runs on more than one occasion due to overthrows, the world’s premier fast bowler lost it in the third over of the innings and conceded 14 runs, and Graeme Smith didn’t know where to hide—one man was calmness personified.

There has been a lot of useless talk before the World Cup about doing it for Tendulkar; useless because the World Cup is not about individuals. But if one were to just consider it for argument’s sake then here was a perfect stage set by the genius and it only needed some backing up. India’s veteran cricket writer R. Mohan in his beautiful piece said, “It takes far more than the world’s greatest batsman to swing an ODI even if he is Superman who once scored a double century to seal a game.” In the 90s Tendulkar did it alone on many occasions as he knew that his wicket meant the game was done for India. This is a different team though and he may well have been under added pressure to play the big shots in the powerplay with the knowledge that traditional accumulation would deny his team extra runs as the power-hitters were in the dressing room. He now knows better.

Dale Steyn, the man of the match in Nagpur, picked up 5 wickets but for his first seven overs he toiled hard and went for 46 runs without a wicket to show. His partner Morkel bowled six overs for 50 runs with the wickets column being empty. The threat was not just taken care of but had been dismissed out of sight.

What then happened to India? How come the explosive batting line-up Dhoni was referring to went off like a cheap cracker? It wasn’t a choke as umpteen newspapers proclaimed in bold and big headlines on the front as well as the sports pages. A choke happens in a situation where a team has victory in sight but to get there it has to absorb some pressure (little or big) and not let the situation, the opposition, or its own hesitancy/lack of belief get to it—when it gets to the team you can say they choked. At 267 for 1 in 39.3 overs with Steyn having just three overs left and India having nine wickets in hand even the remote possibility of pressure had been taken out of the equation. What unfolded was far worse than a choke as India imploded without any pressure at all. And unlike a choke, where a team loses wickets by being tentative, India blazed its way to hell. They fuelled and lit their own pyre.

The first problem was the batting order and it started with number three. Gambhir is a really good player and if an early wicket had fallen he was an ideal choice but he has not been in the best of form and a crunch game was not the time where he should have been sent up to find his feet, especially after a blazing start. Virat Kohli has been in terrific touch for more than a year now and he also did exceptionally-well in South Africa earlier this year and India needed a player high on confidence and scoring freely without risk to allow Tendulkar to breathe easy for a while. Kohli at number seven is a complete waste as he is not someone who bludgeons the ball but plays conventional and smart cricket.

The combined average for Kohli at number 3 and 4 is 52.90 while at number 6 and 7 it drops to 12.66. Dhoni picked on the top order needlessly as they have done reasonably-well in the tournament and his emphasis on the explosive game of the middle-order belies its fragility and builds a case for wanton hitting.

South Africa was under the pump at 144 for 1 after 18 overs and Smith would have given his life for a sedate partnership compared to the carnage that had taken place. The next 18 overs yielded just 93 runs and South Africa clawed their way back into the contest. Even Tendulkar lost the pace of his innings with Gambhir finding it difficult to break free.

The bigger mistake was to send Yusuf Pathan up the order and I am not saying this out of retrospective intelligence. The move was disastrous for two reasons and the first is that the team management should have considered how Pathan has done in different situations. In 9 innings before Nagpur where he has batted up the order (batting positions number 3, 4, and 5) Pathan averages 14.11 with three ducks and two single-digit scores and not a single half-century—that average has now fallen to 12.70. In 26 innings at number 6 and 7 Pathan has an average of 42 with two hundreds and three fifties.

It is no secret that Pathan struggles against fast bowling and since India had already taken a powerplay, South Africa was always going to use their strength and would not have foolishly obliged the Indians by bringing on a spinner against Pathan. The other reason why his promotion was a mistake has to do with the message that it sends to the dressing room. It means that we are going hell for leather even at the cost of digging our own grave. Was the middle-order under undue pressure to cash in big time after a great start to demonstrate that the captain’s belief in their explosive abilities was not unfounded?

This game has made it clear that the explosive middle-order can implode any moment and they should be chastised for their approach rather than given encouragement for their suicidal ways. India’s middle-order showed a complete lack of understanding of the game’s situation. Dhoni himself could do nothing to take charge of the situation and shepherd India at the finishing line. It wasn’t an epic fightback that brought South Africa back into the game and Steyn didn’t bowl a hostile and unplayable spell. It was a complete abrogation of responsibility by everyone bar the trio at the top that let South Africa in.

Tinkering with the batting order was not a good example of out of the box thinking. A good one would have been to take the batting powerplay right after 15 overs with the instruction of playing normal cricket to Sehwag and Tendulkar. That would have caught the South Africans by surprise and it would have forced Smith’s hand to either bring back his strike bowlers, who had gone for plenty, or operate with lesser bowlers to two set players in a powerplay. Either way India would have benefited and could have been above 170/180 in 20 overs without breaking a sweat. And South Africa would have been gutted with the game killed for them.

Instead this game has thrown India’s campaign in disarray and though this team has shown character and bounced back on several occasions the biggest disadvantage here is the lift that the South African team would have got from it. They were dead and buried after the England game and were down and out against India after just 25 overs before India handed over the impetus to them. Graeme Smith saying that it is a massive win for us is actually an understatement.

There are matches that have little bearing on a team’s campaign bar their result and there are those that have psychological implications that go well beyond the immediate and sow seeds of self-doubt in the camp. This match potentially has the power of going beyond the Saturday and India would do well to remember the lessons and forget the game. How they bounce back from here would be the thing to watch out for and it would be very interesting to see their approach if they meet South Africa again in the tournament.

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The Cobra Strikes In Mamba Land

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Durban will no longer be synonymous with a meek Indian capitulation. That India came out and defied all odds to leave South Africa in tatters at Kingsmead is perhaps the biggest confirmation of the fact that this team never gives up.

Durban has not been a happy hunting ground for India. Back in 1996 the Indian team had one of its worst defeats at Kingsmead where the fiery Allan Donald supported by the menacingly-accurate Shaun Pollock ran through the Indian batting line-up in both the innings. India could not last 40 overs in either innings and collapsed to 100 in the first and 66 in the second innings. It was not a high scoring game and yet India lost by a massive 328 runs.

On India’s last tour to South Africa in 2006, they came to Durban for the Boxing Day Test after having won the first Test comfortably at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. Almost a day’s play was lost to rain and bad light and India just had to survive about two sessions to eke out a draw and head to Cape Town maintaining their lead. South Africa hustled India in under two sessions on a rain interrupted day where a little more resistance from the top order would have made it much easier for the lower order to hang in there when the light was fading fast.

This time India came to Durban with not just its past history of struggling against the bounce of Kingsmead but also after a drubbing in the first Test at Centurion. There is no denying the fact that India got the worst of the conditions at Centurion. With a wicket that did much more on the first day than it did on any of the subsequent ones and despite a good batting performance in the second innings India lost by an innings and 25 runs.

Shaun Pollock was asked after Centurion: “One up, two to play. How difficult would it be for India to come back from here?” Pollock replied, “It’s massive. I really can’t see them coming back. When you watch their performance, just the four test wickets that they got in this match, I am not too sure where they are going to get the 20 wickets from.”

The South Africans can’t complain that India didn’t give them enough warning that things could change and that they could change drastically. In Nagpur earlier this year South Africa won the toss and put 558 runs on the board. Dale Steyn ran through the Indian line-up picking 7 for 51 in India’s first innings and then another three in the second to set up South Africa’s win by an innings and six runs.

The action then moved to Eden Gardens in Kolkata with India’s number one Test ranking at stake. South Africa won another important toss and they were coasting at 218 for 1, looking set to bat India out of the game. South Africa may have heard about and prepared for an Indian comeback in Kolkata but then nothing prepares you for the kind of madness that took place that day. South Africa slumped to 298 all out; at a crucial juncture they lost five middle-order wickets for the addition of four runs. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, and M S Dhoni scored centuries as India declared at 643 for 6 and then bowled South Africa under 300 again to win by an innings and 57 runs.

That was in familiar conditions at home and this has been in alien conditions suiting the South Africans completely where India was also pegged back having lost another vital toss. Smith smiled on his luck and South Africa decided to insert India in. In overcast conditions India came out to combat the swing, seam and bounce that Steyn and Morne Morkel got on a fresh wicket that had a bit of moisture. It was a better batting effort but not enough to be out of the woods till the bowlers came and ripped open the Test.

If Centurion wasn’t a 136-run wicket, as the South Africans kept saying, then was Kingsmead a 131-run wicket on a sunny day when the bowlers got less assistance? Zaheer Khan led the attack brilliantly and the Indian team caught fabulously to take a very handy 74-run lead. The game, once again, seemed to be on an even keel when India was reduced to 56 for four. And then, like a colossus, V V S Laxman stood up and steered India to a lead of over 300 with his brilliant 96 on a wicket where the second highest score from either team in both innings was 39.

The way the Indians bowled as a unit is something South Africa would be wary of before heading to Cape Town. It was on the fourth morning when they gave nothing away that the South African team wilted under pressure. Runs were plugged from both ends as Sreesanth bowled his best spell of the tour and Harbhajan Singh bowled with such control that one wondered if he had the ball on a leash.

The abiding memory of the Test would be the dismissal of Jacques Kallis. Sreesanth got the ball to dart in from a length and venomously leap like a cobra towards Kallis’ head. Kallis was airborne and like a supreme athlete his body was arched like a human C but he couldn’t do anything but glove the ball with sheer survival instinct. The ball ballooned to Sehwag at gully and Kallis was on his way. Allan Donald said on television that it was a ball that had Kallis’ name on it and what made it such an impossible one to deal with was the fact that it did so much so quickly that the batsman had absolutely no time.

South Africa was a cock-a-hoop after Centurion and they were undone by an absolutely brilliant performance by the Indian team at Durban. All this bodes well for Cape Town, where the South Africans will be smarting from the defeat at Kingsmead and the Indians will be well aware that this could be their opportunity to finally win a test series in the African nation. The return of Gautam Gambhir augurs well for the visitors and this time it will be the South Africans who’ll need to do a bit of soul searching.

(This piece was first done for The Sunday Guardian website on December 30, 2010)

That Was A Number 1 Performance

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“We wanted to be at the top of the table; we know we have the players to keep being No 1,” Harbhajan said after the game. “We are very happy and it’s fantastic to win the way we did. The heart was pumping in the end.” The hunger and the controlled aggression of the Indian team was visible in the game throughout. This has been as good a win as any; but spare a thought for Hashim Amla, who stood defiantly not out on 123; and I guess it was that thing for which the word in cricketing lexicon is ‘unbeaten’ as he was hardly ever beaten by a bowler or by whatever else was happening at the other end or at the stands that were bubbling with expectation. Amla batted with assurance and poise for more than 8 hours without giving a hint of a chance. You’ve got to doff your hat for such an unbelievable performance.

As for turnarounds, this is an even bigger one than the famous Indian victory in Perth after the debacle of Sydney. Going in to Perth India knew that Sydney was a close match and lady luck was not in their favour as the two most-evident umpiring mistakes dented India at vital stages of the game. India was convincingly-thrashed in Nagpur where South Africa amassed 558 and Steyn struck both with the new and the old ball to destroy India for 233. India made 319 in the second innings and South Africa won by an innings and 6 runs. India could manage just 6 wickets and climbing from 6 to 20 with the same set of bowlers looked impossible. A headline summed the debacle; “No crumbs of comfort for India’

After Nagpur, when Smith was reminded that the last time when they were one up after another Steyn special in Ahmedabad, they headed to a rank turner in Kanpur—where some great batting by Sourav Ganguly and the spinners on a responsive surface helped draw the series—he said: “So are you telling me there’s a guy with a rake at the Eden Gardens? India have more control over the conditions. We need to focus on the specifics…prepare and execute our gameplans.”

In Nagpur, once Amla and Kallis got in, the runs came nice and easy and they batted beautifully when the surface was the best and then put India in after two days of batting. An exceptional new ball burst by Steyn exposed the soft belly of the Indian middle-order; there was no Dravid and no Laxman and Tendulkar fell to the ball of the day.

At the Eden Gardens, though, India did not need a rake and they even lost the toss and were staring down the barrel when South Africa were coasting at 218 for 1; with Kallis and the entire batting line-up having Duminy at number 7 to follow. The wicket had no gremlins and not a single ball kicked up like it did when Dhoni got dismissed in India’s first innings in Nagpur. That makes it a special turnaround because it takes some character to come out of a demoralising defeat like Nagpur and then go on and inflict an even bigger damage to the rival camp.

South Africa would know that they got bowled out twice on a surface that was good for batting even on the fifth day and that India took the second innings wickets without the crafty Zaheer Khan operating on the last day. They would also know that about a day in this match was lost to rain and bad light. In the end India won the match by an innings and 57 runs despite having their backs pinned to the wall. When a team wins like this then the number 1 rank has meaning and it seems to belong.

Eden Gardens And Post-Tea Ghouls

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India was almost there to make it two days in a row for them to get on top of South Africa and turn the Test match at Eden Gardens decisively in their favour but for the last six overs in which three quick wickets fell and the match was alive again. It has been a riveting contest for two days and India fought their way back into the Test valiantly from a seemingly-improbable position yesterday.

It was the magical combination of Eden Gardens and the Indian bowling attack, which had looked so out of sorts in Nagpur and for the better part of two sessions on Sunday, that turned the game on its head. With South Africa at 218 for 1 and both Amla and the debutant Petersen having reached their individual hundreds Sunday gave no intimation of the kind of dramatic turnarounds that have become part of the folklore of this magnificent venue.

Zaheer took over from a confidence-boosting spell by Ishant and got rid of both the centurions either side of tea. After tea when Harbhajan Singh was brought from the other end there were two new batsmen yet to open their account at the crease and two potent attacking bowlers operating in tandem.

The tension was palpable. You could see the destiny of the day and perhaps the match and the series precariously balanced as Harbhajan tossed the ball, got drift and some bounce. AB de Villiers used his feet to quickly reach to the pitch of a ball to defend it and then both Kallis and de Villiers stepped out to hit Harbhajan over the in-field for boundaries. Someone in the commentary box spoke about Harbhajan bowling just one maiden in Nagpur and that the pressure would not build if he went for runs. The fours came in the 60th and the 62nd over and they were both clean good hits. With two new batsmen, yet to reach double figures, stepping out to hit him over the top, Harbhajan needed no further indication to plot yet another episode of his serial killings. He kept at it.

Kallis and de Villiers were trying to upset the rhythm of Harbhajan; but the Turbanator is a sly fox with a good understanding of when to go for the jugular and from the moment Laxman took a blinder to send Kallis packing he was unstoppable. Harbhajan with a wicket in his bag is an entirely different proposition and this one was long due and Laxman did his bit to pluck a beauty running backwards after having dropped a sitter at first slip earlier. That was the beginning of the end.

It was the first ball of the 66th over and then there was the Harbhajan Singh magic show. With the first and second ball of his next over from round the stumps Harbhajan had both the south paws, in Prince and Duminy, dead in front of the wicket playing for the turn when the ball went straight. The batsmen plonked their pad to take the ball outside the line and play for the turn but the ball drifted in and pitched in line and went straight to have them both bamboozled and looking like ducks. Steyn survived the hat-trick ball by doing nothing silly; it was another lovely topspinner and he was on the backfoot with the ball missing the edge and the off stump by inches. It was pandemonium and de Villiers could not take it so he ran himself out. Zaheer picked the ball near short cover and in one smooth motion turned and sent it ripping towards the non-striker’s end to find the diving de Villiers short. Steyn looking gunned at the other end.

Today was good for India as their batting had not clicked in Nagpur and Gambhir looked solid with Sehwag and 73 runs came in just 9.2 overs. Gambhir’s run-out was unfortunate and though Sehwag compensated by making a big hundred himself he still would be kicking himself for a priced scalp like Gambhir needlessly getting out cheaply. Nine more runs and as solid as he was looking Vijay was back in the hut with India 82 for two.

Tendulkar joined Sehwag and tapped the first ball he played, a 147 kph full delivery outside off from Morkel, to point for a single. That was the beginning of an assured partnership in which Tendulkar gave another display of his class and his mastery. He played the ball with that natural and intriguing intimacy that he has developed in the last few seasons; something that can be metaphorically-likened to a completely in-sync romantic couple at ease with each other. He was solid in defence and gave no bowler even a hint of a chance. It was just beautiful batting.

Sehwag contributed 119 to the partnership and Tendulkar 106 and the runs came at a fair clip of 4.31 runs per over. The partnership was worth 249 runs and if Sehwag gave a few chances along with his exquisite strokes there was always the solid presence of Tendulkar to guide the partnership.

Alas, the twist in the tail came towards the end of the day and took some sheen off a day full of wonderful batting. Sehwag was the first to go, with a half-hearted drive to Duminy, caught by Prince at cover; the camera for a split second showing the anguish that it caused Tendulkar. With the partnership broken Harris went round the wicket in the next over and Tendulkar made his first mistake of the day and was caught in the slips. Steyn then uprooted the off stump of Badrinath and the game was more evenly poised than it was just half an hour before stumps.

The lead is only 46 right now and India should keep it in mind that the drama surely happens post-tea and if they can bat with application for two sessions before tea then it would not matter if the post tea ghosts of Eden Gardens surface again tomorrow.

Having fallen today can India rise tomorrow?

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What a day of Test cricket. It was all Dale Steyn; he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house apart. On a wicket where playing a fast bowler was not impossible, it was on the slower side and without extravagant bounce, Steyn breathed fire. He barged in through the gates, destroying any attempt of resistance from India, during two hostile and fatal spells separated by a middle session where Sehwag and Badrinath raised hopes of some kind of a resurrection.

The straight-talking Sehwag said, “We are very angry with the way we batted.” Sehwag was more critical of the fact that they did not last long enough to tire the opposition and stitch meaningful partnerships apart from the one he had with Badrinath. “It was not a pitch where you could get out so easily. If there were a couple of more partnerships their bowlers might have got tired. But you have to give the credit to the bowlers led by Steyn.”

Steyn gave some credit to the ball change before tea as the seam of the earlier one had come apart; but losing six wickets for 12 runs in eight overs after tea is a combination of some great bowling and some gormless batting. India did not have the batting to survive good spells and to have the reserve keeper Saha making a debut as a specialist batsman shows how the bench was planned. Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh were out of the squad much in advance and Laxman was iffy before the start of the match. So what were the choices for Dhoni when Rohit Sharma got injured on the morning when his big valuable chance was about to be served to him in a platter?

With a flimsy batting line-up that had very little experience the three early wickets took the cream away with Morkel taking Gambhir and Steyn getting rid of Murali Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar. In the boiling cauldron at Nagpur today India was desperately missing what you call seasoned campaigners; the players who can bat in the heat of a furnace. One of them is still at the crease in the second essay and these days when he gets going he is a much more wiser, battle-hardened and tough customer than he was in his resplendent days of yore.

Sehwag on his day just requires someone to stay with him and he has shown that he has both application and amazing stroke-play to get near a triple hundred on his own. Today he fell into a trap; India was not even two hundred when after having reached a hundred he chased a wide one shortly before tea. His was the fourth Indian wicket to fall and his tea would have barely finished when he was back opening the second innings for India.

Sehwag was back in the hut in the second innings but he was not short of the belief that is needed after a day like this. “He refused to accept that India stood on the brink of disaster, saying the hosts had the firepower to stage a fight back. ‘They need to play their own shots but they need to exercise patience,’” he was quoted in a Cricinfo story.

A target of 150 plus on a fifth day wicket with Harbhajan and Mishra could be a tricky one for South Africa; but in order to get there India would have to play a different ball game than the one they played today.

Dhoni Personifies 21st Century Leadership

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It was 97 for 3 after 15.1 overs when MS Dhoni joined Gautam Gambhir in the second ODI in Nagpur and from here he gently nudged India to a position from where he and Suresh Raina could then ferociously turn the course of the match.

The first ball that Dhoni faced was a bouncer from Hilfenhaus; he didn’t pick it and took evasive action without his eyes on the ball. It hit him on the back of the helmet, but he was alive to the possibility of a leg-bye; and at the non-striker’s end he could even afford a smile.

The rebuilding process began with the scrambling for ones and twos; haring between the wickets and picking the odd boundary in between. The period reminded me of a brilliant half-century that Dhoni got against Sri Lanka and saw India home without hitting a single boundary in Adelaide last year. The 119-run fourth wicket partnership at over six an over was broken with the strange run-out of Gambhir—the second time he’s lost his wicket recently while backing up.

Raina joined Dhoni with 16 overs remaining and India in a good position with 216 on the board. The next five overs yielded just 22 runs as Raina had time to get his eye in. India was 251 for 4 in 41 overs when the deft stealing had been done and the loot began. And what a loot it was.

In the next 8 overs India plundered 98 runs as Dhoni’s bottom-hand and Raina’s innovative hitting mercilessly butchered the Aussie attack. Dhoni may have curbed his style with additional responsibilities but he showed how much muscle he can pack into those typical MSD strokes if the situation demands. He jumped from 90 to 108 with three bottom-handed sixes in four balls. Flat sixes and fours that went like tracer bullets flowed from his bat before he fell in the last over having made 124 in 107 balls. There was ample support from the two southpaws and Gambhir’s 76 and Raina’s 62 later gave the captain the license to kill.

After losing his first ODI series as captain against Australia at home 4-2; Dhoni has won every bilateral ODI series home and away. The losses have been in tournaments with a format involving more than two teams; the Kitply and the Asia Cup and the two World tournaments this year.

The two finals that India won in the last edition of the Commonwealth Bank Series in Australia are the crowning glory of India’s ODI achievements. Teams with big names on paper have played in the tri-series before and Australia has mostly proved to be too hot to handle in the finals. Dhoni got Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla in the playing XI in the finals. Praveen opened the attack and took two vital wickets and Piyush was given the ball when Hayden and Symonds were hitting the seamers easily. They justified the captain’s faith amply and Australia managed a gettable 239 in 50 overs.

It needed a big performance on the big stage to go past Australia; and a magnificent 117 not out by Tendulkar and his vigilant and daring 123-run partnership with young Rohit Sharma, who made 66, ensured that India went to Brisbane with a lead. “He has scored 16,000 runs. I haven’t even played 16,000 balls.” That was the pithy comment from Dhoni when asked, halfway through the CB Series, if he was bothered by his senior-most batsman failing to make big runs. When his experience and ability to fashion a chase in a big match was needed Tendulkar played the perfect innings in a perfect chase.

The business was finished in Brisbane and Dhoni stepped back a little and asked for the youngest member in the team; and a grinning Chawla held the trophy aloft. That and the T-shirt he put on a young Indian fan after the World T20 win symbolises his leadership.

His giving Ganguly those few overs to lead the Test team for one last time before bowing out showed the magnanimity of his leadership—and coming ahead of all the big names in the Mohali Test showed he can take tough decisions easily if needed. He does not shy from trusting a youngster at the deep end of the sea. He respects the present and the past achievers but is pretty-much his own man. He has no need to foist himself on the team or to seek respect and that is one of the reasons why he earns it so well. Dhoni personifies the leadership required for a 21st Century India.

The Greg Chappell Years

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Sometime in the spring of 2005, two Australians were among the contenders for coaching jobs in the sub-continent; in India and Sri Lanka—Australian legend Greg Chappell and former Aussie all-rounder Tom Moody. India’s deciding committee was impressed by Chappell’s presentation and his ‘commitment to excellence’ mantra was given a green signal. A few days later Sri Lanka signed Tom Moody.

When the Aussie legend took over the Indian team in the summer of 2005, India’s own living legend was in London for a surgery on his left arm after tennis elbow had forced him to miss the middle part of 2004. Ganguly was under some pressure after a poor Test series at home against Pakistan while Dravid was in the form of his life and had played some memorable innings 2001 onwards.

The Indian team left for Zimbabwe for a two-Test series and a tri-nation ODI tournament with Chappell as the coach and Ganguly as the captain. The fire that began in India’s tour to this landlocked country in the southern part of Africa; and the incidents that further helped its spread across the Indian Ocean caused ripples that were felt by the two cricketing nations of Australia and India.

This period of turbulence led to Ganguly being removed as captain and later dropped from the side. It is not possible to give an accurate account of the dressing room incidents and is prudent to just keep it as a background without delving into various versions. The return of Ganguly as a Test batsman in the South African Test tour though is a story of amazing human possibilities; he certainly made a statement and the manner of his run-making in Tests said a lot about his stubborn character.

After slightly over six months on October 25, 2005, Tendulkar opened his account in the second legal delivery he faced against Sri Lanka in an ODI in Nagpur. It was a ball that was full and a trifle wide outside the off stump; Tendulkar reached for it and the coruscating drive burned the grass on its way to the cover boundary. He was batting on 11 off 11 balls when he first faced Fernando, bowling his 2nd over; he missed the first ball and played a front foot drive off the second for no run.

The third ball was a relief for millions; it was a pick-up shot that sailed over the midwicket fence for a six. Tendulkar’s riposte to speculation on his future was nothing less than stunning; he made 93 off 96 balls. This was a start to the season where India won 6-1 against Sri Lanka, 4-1 against Pakistan in Pakistan, a 2-2 draw against South Africa and a 5-1 win against England.

India left for the World Cup in decent current form but crashed out in the first round and with it also ended the association of Chappell with the team. There are no questions about Greg Chappell’s place among the game’s batting greats but his coaching career is not above reproach or rather not as glorious as his playing career.

Greg Chappell then said that India would struggle in Australia with just one tour game well before the 2007 Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. Then about 12 days or so before the tour, the Herald Sun ran a story headlined “India ‘old and selfish’, says former coach Greg Chappell”. The story said that Greg expected India to be well-beaten.

Written by Ron Reed, the story talked about an absorbing and candid documentary on Chappell’s incumbency called Guru Greg. It also dealt with Chappell’s views on India’s World Cup debacle. “We came here with a flawed group and got the results we deserved,” he said. “If there is not an intention of change, there’s no point in me—or any other coaches, for that matter—getting involved. It’s very difficult to keep putting wallpaper over the cracks. The cracks have got big and the structure needs to be dealt with.”

The story said that the views of Chappell before India’s arrival would dishearten fans. “Chappell’s honest opinion has poured cold water on the hopes of many cricket fans that the Indians would provide a more competitive series against the Australians in an already dull summer of cricket. It is a depressing thought for anyone hoping for a more competitive series than Sri Lanka has been able to provide so far,” the story added.

A Test tour to Australia is the biggest challenge in the international calendar; and a series win on Australian soil the most-prized possession for a team and its fans. Have a look at the calendar and see if our cricket board has in any way facilitated the players in giving them the best chance of succeeding in Australia. The ODI season was packed till November 18th and the Test season went on till December 12th 2007.

The Indian team arrived jet-lagged and the solitary tour game was washed out and they had to badly-lose the first Test to acclimatise; although it was a surface that according to Australia suited India the most. At least a fortnight of total rest and then a conditioning camp followed by at least two if not three tour games would have been some justice towards the team. It may have also revealed form and adjustment factor and Sehwag may have played right from the first match.

Despite all the impediments; the players gave the Aussies a series that was a bit more than just competitive. India lost in Melbourne and won in Perth; the den where Australia used a four-pronged pace attack. Adelaide was a draw. And Sydney was the whole point.

Sir Neville Cardus once said, “There ought to be some other means of reckoning quality in this best and loveliest of games; the scoreboard is an ass.” So it was a 2-1 result in favour of Australia and Ishant Sharma, according to bowling figures just took a solitary wicket in the Australian second innings in Perth. The story beyond the scoreboard is the fascinating beauty of the game. Tendulkar ended the Test series with his best return ever; two big hundreds and two sizzling scores of 63 and 71.

The young team that came for the ODIs defeated the number 1 side in the world in their backyard by winning the first two finals of the Commonwealth Bank Series; you were right Greg, but the young team won it on the back of an unbeaten hundred and a 91 by the ‘legendary old man’.

When Australia came to India, Guru Greg was with the Aussie contingent in Bangalore but was nowhere to be seen afterwards. Ganguly had announced that it would be his last series and got a hundred in Mohali and debutant Amit Mishra took five wickets. India won by 320 runs.

Tendulkar rounded off another good series with a hundred in Nagpur and the captaincy baton passed to Dhoni. India won the series 2-0 to claim the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The Sachin Tendulkar chapter is in its most-beautiful phase and Greg Chappell could do well to remember that, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

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