In 2007, I had hesitatingly “predicted” (perhaps too strong a word) India’s victory in the T20 World Cup. This was because I saw in them a shadow of our 1983 World Cup team—- underdogs, with little in the way of reputation and unsullied by expectation.
This time however I saw in them the team of 1987 i.e. mega-hyped pre-tournament favorites who dominate the tournament and then in a few moments of madness (not keeping men for Gooch’s sweep, Kapil Dev’s crazy slog-sweep) throw it all away.
I was wrong. The Indian team of 2009 World Cup, unlike their grand-daddys in 87, never really looked, at any point of time, capable of going the distance. In all the matches save against Ireland they rarely dominated with their tournament hopes being obliterated by losing to two of the weakest teams in the league of the Big Boys—the English and the West Indies. When they played for pride, they did even worse going down in a spineless, spiritless surrender to South Africa.
And the saddest thing about India’s debacle is that they looked like rabbits, genuinely outclassed by their opposition. Indian batsmen, in the throwback to the 70s and the 80s, were undone by short deliveries as they took their eyes of the ball, top-edged, dragged onto the stumps and in general got themselves into the most frightful of tangles. Watching the so-called “greatest Indian batting line up ever” struggle against well-directed but definitely far short of Marshall-Ambrose quality bowling on pitches that had no Perthian demons in them, was to, put it mildly, embarrassing. An embarrassment that was further exacerbated by their clueless hobble against the tepid spin of Botha and Van Der Meowwww.
If there is any silver lining in this drubbing, it is that hopefully the expectations from Dhoni’s men which had scaled stratospheric heights, on the back of some genuinely good performances and a lot of vacuous fizzle-pop in the private mujra known as the IPL will be brought down to realistic levels.
No dear Indian cricket fan. Neither passion nor junoon nor the “never-say-die-spirit” of Youngistan nor “whatever buzzword the admeisters cook up and fans then repeat like zombies” can consistently gloss over technical shortcomings and strategic ineptness.
The Indian war machine has looked invincible over the past few months based on the superlative form of their openers—Gambhir and Sehwag. The hammering they inflicted on the opposition alone and often in tandem simply papered over many of the team’s shortcomings. It was inevitable that the bubble, like the mortgage market, was going to burst some day. And once it did with Sehwag moping around, physically and emotionally wounded like an aged spinster and Gambhir in a scratchy trough, the stuffing came out in a “dudh ka dudh paani ka paani” way.
Rohit Sharma has more than a passing resemblance to Vinod Kambli and let me leave it at that. Yousuf Pathan is a batsman severely challenged in terms of ability. He can destroy attacks that consist of Laxmiratan Sukla and Ajit Agarkar (and by recent performance Ishant Sharma) but consistently struggles against the next rung up the quality ladder.
His success against decent opposition is predicated by the way he is used. Shane Warne is a master of this and through two seasons of IPL has reaped great success by floating Yousuf Pathan through the line-up and inserting him into the mix in a strategically calculated way. In the Indian lineup however, he is used unimaginatively as he stays cast in stone in his batting position thus exposing his fundamental frailty.
Which brings us to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Ever since Misbah-ul-Haq had a “we all go crazy sometimes” pyscho moment in the finals of the 2007 T20 World Cup, Dhoni has led a charmed life. Everything he has touched has turned into gold. Government awards. A security detail consisting of women. Bihari virgins singing for a husband like him. A price-tag to die for in the IPL.
It was inevitable that his luck would run out. Some day.
A lot has been said about Dhoni’s arrogance of late especially after his not turning up at a presidential function, rebuffing Amitabh Bachchan, openly expressing his irritation at Sehwag in a press conference and then staging a hormonally-charged dramatic display of “anger” with a very unconvincing show of strength. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and Dhoni has been accused, of late, of being caught on the wrong side several times in the recent past.
I am not willing to put too much importance to that in the context of a post-mortem. Dhoni is what he is. If we were in the semi-finals each of these acts would be “waah-waahed” as Youngistan swagger, the signature of the “India Shining” (not to be confused with India “Shiny” which is a different kettle of fish altogether) team. So no use dissecting intangibles like Dhoni’s attitude as contributory factors for our loss. Pride may come before a fall but in this case it is rather simplistic, though emotionally satisfying (“Too big your boots eh”?) to blame pride as having caused the disaster.
What has caused the debacle has been his horrendous batting slump. Watching Dhoni bat like a fish washed onto shore fluttering his fins in impotence with his attempts at aggression (in the match against West Indies, his strike rate was 47.00) more reminiscent of Angshuman Gaekwad’s endeavors at slogging than of anything else has indeed been very painful. Again it is tempting to blame Dhoni’s conscious metamorphosis from a village-green slogger to a pusher-and-prodder for this loss of mojo, but the fact remains that when in form Dhoni is able to seamlessly move from the “steal-a-single-with-angled-bat-mode” to his “let me wield my 12 incher” mode. That he can no longer do so is a testament to the state of his mind more than the change in his batting philosophy.
Once Dhoni’s batting fell to pieces, his keeping followed suit. I dont know how many noticed this but I saw him regularly fluffing rather regulation takes behind the stumps, in a manner that would make even Deep Dasgupta smile wryly.
Where Dhoni’s total loss of form absolutely destroyed Team India was in the way it messed up his ability to lead. In an attempt to play himself into form against a so-called weak opposition, Dhoni almost gave the match to Bangladesh by going in at one drop, ahead of colleagues who were playing better, and wasting precious time. Some would say this was Dhoni putting himself before the team (something which one was led to believe was solely a prerogative of the Oldistan players) while some others would argue that he took a gamble of playing himself into form, a gamble that just didnt work out.
However what even his biggest fans would find tough to justify would be the decision to send Jadeja before Yuvraj in the match against England. With wickets falling fast to the bouncing delivery and with the next man to go in, here is your choice—
Batsman A: The best player of pace with a special fondness for bouncy pitches. In sparking form. Has a record of saving his best for England and has a psychological edge over a key opposition bowler, who he in the previous version of the tournament carted for six sixes.
Batsman B: A largely unknown quantity who has never been tested at the highest level and definitely not under the pressure of a must-win international situation. He is not even a batsman but more of a bits-and-pieces utility player.
Dhoni sends in Batsman B. Batsman B bats like my maternal aunty at the family picnic, flails his bat about with little effect and almost single-handedly derails the chase. Dhoni justifies his stunning decision by saying that at a time when wickets were falling, they wanted to protect Yuvraj Singh.
Protect the best batsman of the team (on current form) from what? Astounding totally astounding.
In passing, I would like to say that I am skeptical about Gary Kirsten’s whole “blame IPL” song. The reason is simple. For the T20 World Cup tournament, the IPL would have been the perfect practice ground providing as it does an ability to hone one’s skill in the company of some of the world’s best players. I am sure AB Villiers and Dilshan (who has gone on record saying that his scoop shot was extensively practices during the IPL) would agree with me since they have carried off their excellent IPL form into the T20 World Cup without any loss of intensity. On the other side of the coin, Australia’s disastrous performance was blamed among other things on the fact that most of their main players had no T20 practice having opted out of the IPL. And finally, Gambhir and Sehwag looked lack luster during the IPL itself and so nothing good can come from blaming the IPL for their sorry state.
Dhoni’s men have now come a full circle. In 2007, they started off as the “replacements” for a previous generation of heroes, popular underdogs with nothing to lose and everything to prove. They were on the offensive and they were aggressive.
In 2009, things had changed. They were no longer the “little guys”. They had now become the new “fat cats”, a part of the establishment, with everything to lose and nothing to prove. This made them so overtly defensive that they deemed it necessary to shield their best player at a time when they needed him the most.
In a way therefore, their defeat had become inevitable.
Whether Dhoni and his men are able come out stronger from this experience remains to be seen. If they can, then yes they still remain champions even though they might not have the trophy.