12 February 2011.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni has an immense task on his hands. Of course it is only a sporting task and not to be compared to clearing up Brazil after floods or Queensland after a cyclone. However, the challenge is not to be underestimated. Emotions are going to be pitched high.
On paper India’s task is relatively simple. A side at the peak of its powers and playing its early matches on home soil is called upon to subdue equally ambitious but slightly weaker visiting teams themselves carrying a weight of expectation.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni in fielding practice.
Photo © Blnguyen / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
On paper India is well placed. Whereas other countries have already lost players to injury, the local squad remains intact and reports suggest that Virender Sehwag will recover in time. Sooner or later experts will be asked to investigate the current rash of injuries and report upon its causes and consequences.
Moreover most of the Indian players are running into form. Only by examining his birth certificate could anyone tell that Sachin Tendulkar is in his twilight years. Gautam Gambhir is back amongst the runs and Yusuf Pathan is beginning to assert himself. Harbhajan Singh seems to have travelled a long way in a short time.
On paper the position is promising. India can dare to dream of the perfect end to several brilliant careers. Supporters can hope that their team will confirm the new confidence of the nation at large.
But cricket is played on fields and in the minds of men. Several factors combine to make winning the WC harder than it might first appear. The early matches may not be that significant. Battle begins in the quarters. A team needs to win three successive knock-out contests against handy opponents. One slip up or one bit of bad luck and it’s over.
Also it is the most open World Cup for decades. India is strong but other teams are rising. Sri Lanka has been preparing for months and fields a potent line-up. Despite recent defeats England remains competitive and has discovered the winning habit. South Africa is a talented side and not as scarred. And did someone mention Australia?
Dhoni is a cool customer, blessed with the ability to make calm decisions in the heat of battle and to avoid panic when things are going wrong off the field. In that regard he resembles Steve Waugh, who turned around Australia’s faltering campaign in 1999.
Already Dhoni has shown his ruthlessness and imperturbability. In Nagpur he instructed his bowlers to aim well wide of the wickets, a negative tactic that did little for the game as a spectacle but advanced his team’s position. His strategy was condemned by numerous critics, including your scribe, but he was not bothered about that. He set out not to please but to win.
Dhoni has also displayed the ability to hold a team together in tough times. Twice in South Africa his side fought back from a poor start, squaring the Test series and narrowly losing the ODIs. That bodes well. A leader who retains his faith can also retain the confidence of his players.
If India prevails, Dhoni will deserve all the ensuing acclamation.