Sunday 23 October 2016

A Sum Of Variables, And A Critical Constant

Faith never wavered even when they faltered. Why? Batting, and MSD.

I believe this is Indian cricket’s greatest triumph, mainly because this team was not the strongest Indian team ever but played like the best Indian team ever. It is quite incredible when you look at India’s bowling attack and its general fielding ability. Those were two massive weaknesses that Mahendra Singh Dhoni had to contend with right through the six-week-long tournament. India’s bowling was about just one world-class bowler in Zaheer Khan, while the rest, more or less, just rallied around him.

Indian Pacer Zaheer Khan during the ICC CWC 2011 Final at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)


Harbhajan Singh, as senior spinner, will be the first to accept that he could have contributed a lot more in this World Cup team. If it were not for Yuvraj Singh’s impact as a left-arm spinner, India would have severely malfunctioned in the World Cup. Yuvraj, interestingly, became this talismanic bowler for India as the tournament went on, so much so that if he bowled well, India won.
Zaheer was always expected to bowl well, so he was that constant factor in the Indian bowling attack. This also showed Zaheer’s growth as a seamer in Indian cricket. After this World Cup, Zaheer has put himself right next to Kapil Dev as the second best seamer ever to play for India.

I often looked closely at Yuvraj’s initial overs when he came on to bowl. If he looked effective in his first couple of overs, India had a great chance of winning the match. This was for two reasons. One, it meant that the pitch was to Yuvraj’s liking, slow and turning, and that also meant that Dhoni could really come into his own as captain. No captain uses the advantage of a slow, turning pitch as well as Dhoni does. Being presented with such a pitch meant he could bring on all his part-time spinning options into play and thereby smartly minimise the drastic effects of a very limited bowling attack.


Pakistan in ’92 and India in ’11 had huge strengths that made up for flaws.

This win has also thrown out the window that theory or cliche—to win 50-over matches you need to be a great fielding side. Two teams have won the World Cup with poor fielding—Pakistan did in 1992, India in 2011. You can even go further and say that you can win a World Cup with not one but two major handicaps. Pakistan in 1992 won the Cup with a weak batting and fielding side, while India in 2011 have won it with a weak bowling and fielding side.

But the unique, and common, property of these two World Cup-winning teams was that their strengths were so awesome that they made up for glaring weaknesses. While Pakistan had great bowling skills, India had great batting skills that stood up to pressure and tough challenges, especially when chasing targets in big games. (A lot of people have asked me whether this is the best Indian batting line-up ever and I tell them, temperamentally this is the best line-up ever).


The other common, decisive factor between Pakistan of 1992 and India of 2011 was the leadership. If Pakistan had Imran Khan, India had Dhoni. A good leader, I guess, is one who knows the strengths of his team well, but understands the weaknesses better.

Imran started batting at No. 3 at a crucial stage of the 1992 World Cup, to protect a fragile top-order Pakistan batting from some quality bowling in Australian conditions. Dhoni has done the same with his bowling in this World Cup by a clever use of part-time spinners, to the extent that one part-time spinner may now lay claim to being a specialist limited-overs left-arm spinner.

Pakistan’s win in 1992 and the Indian win of 2011 have also shown us that cricketing skills are still crucial and relevant in this changing sport to win big championships. Just being supremely fit is not enough. This may be a cue for cricketers to get out of the gym and practise their physical and mental skills more out on the ground, be it in the nets or matches.

Life as a rookie or an underdog is far easier than when you are the fancied one, expected to win all the time. India were the rookies in 1983 while in 2011 they were the team that was expected to win the Cup. Nothing less would do for their fans. This current team did what Sachin Tendulkar has done all his cricketing life, fulfil high expectations.


Post-1983, all Indian teams have had this kind of pressure of expectation, and it was no different this time. No, the difference this time was that sceptics and ‘experts’ from all over the world expected India to win, so the expectation of die-hard fans of Indian cricket had the ‘sanction’ of clinical analysts, too.

Dhoni hasn’t ever let himself be troubled by the question: ‘What if this goes wrong?’

In the past, fans’ expectations were mostly floating on emotions and a certain dose of patriotism not touched by logic, for logic would reveal uncomfortable truths. This time all bases were covered for Indian fans. So how did this Indian team manage to handle the unprecedented pressure to beat the world, that too playing at home, which meant the pressure seemed that much more magnified? There wasn’t the advantage of distance that tends to dilute the famous frenzy of Indian fans before it reaches the players.

Well, the answer to all this is Mahendra Singh Dhoni.


Until the World Cup, Dhoni had given us enough evidence of his rare quality of being able to absorb pressure and keep everything simple and rational despite the huge stakes in the game. Throughout his captaincy, he has, amazingly, never allowed that one thought to creep into his psyche: “What if this goes wrong?” He takes on-field and off-field cricketing decisions based on cricketing logic that makes sense at the time. He does not like to complicate it by too many counter-thoughts. This mindset is Dhoni’s greatest strength as a human being, as a cricketer, and above all, a leader.

It was this uncomplicated cricketing logic that got him to come up the order in the final ahead of four-time man of the match Yuvraj. With two off-spinners bowling in tandem and a partner in the left-handed Gautam Gambhir, it just made obvious cricketing sense to have a right-hander come in.

But this right-hander was not in the greatest of forms, making the idea—an out-of-form batsman coming ahead of a batsman in tremendous form—a bit tricky. But Dhoni was convinced of its perfect sense and didn’t think of the consequences. As usual, there was no place for the thought “what if this goes wrong”. Right from day one, even after their unconvincing performances against England and South Africa, I found it difficult to shake off my trust in this team. Why? Great batting skills and Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

(Sanjay Manjrekar is a former Indian batsman)

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