April 7, 2006
Let the good times roll
It is so uncharacteristic of the Indian team. Till not so long ago, it is almost a given that Indians would always make any given rubber interesting by going down to the last match in the series to decide the eventual winners. Similarly, in any given match, and more so when it comes to chasing, the Indian team would let the decision go down to the wire, at the cost of rising blood pressures of the witnessing audience, before they seal the victory off with only a few balls to spare and only a few wickets at disposal. It was incomprehensible why the team couldn't be more decisive and ruthless when delivering the 'Coup d'état's, and why it has to boil everything down to intimidating equations and improbable victories. From that situation, it has certainly come a long way. It is certainly heartening to see an Indian fan laze around in the stands, without worrying about the result of the game that he paid good money for, enjoying the game just for the spirit of it and for the fun of it, only because the rubber has been declared dead a few days ago in a previous game. The cushion of comfort that has so long eluded the Indian team, and one that has long been the most envied about dominating teams as Australia and South Africa, finally made India its home. A 6-1 against the Lankans, a 4-1 against the North West neighbors and another 4-0 against the erstwhile masters...
Granted that it is probably an exercise in gloating, reading too much into the victories against a much depleted England side, which could not avail the services of its frontline batsmen or bowlers. And granted that most of the crushing series victories in the past couple of years have been achieved on sub-continental wickets, tailor made to the strengths of the home team (similar to ones in Pakistan, but without the home crowd support). However these discounting factors should not take away the one important ingredient that the current team is brimming with - enormous confidence in its abilities to play both sides of the equation equally well - ability to restrict and ability to make up. If the bowling side drops the balls and lets the flood gates open for record scores, the batting unit makes up for more than its share, knocking down a few records along the way. And likewise, if the batting side succumbs to the occasional collapse, courtesy the law of averages, the bowling side pulls the side by the bootstraps, promptly returning the favor. A coach/captain, or for that matter anybody related to Indian cricket even in the most remote way possible, could not ask more of a team, that started make the contest completely in-house - whether it is the bowling unit that would emerge on the top or the batting force that would rise to the occasion, on a given day. And the audience isn't complaining either...
16 victories out of last 20 played, a record 15 wins while chasing down targets, a red-hot winning streak of 8 successive victories, bowling out the opposition in the last 4 - these statistics seems right out of the leaves of either Australian or at least South African record books. They do not seem human or probable for anybody of Indian descent. Such consecutive victories happened before a few years ago - when Ganguly's effigies were burned down in the streets of Calcutta and Sachin personally assured a better performance to put down the passionate flames of one billion people in the previous world cup outing, and kept his word. When it almost looked like the team that went into that World Cup final was the best Indian team that was ever fronted, rivaling even the ones that won World Cups and World series before, the current team went even a step further to claim the title and trophy all for itself. The difference between the team that played in the World Cup and the current one is not so much as in witnessing a team where all the cylinders fire and all the strategies click, but is more about the resilience of the group to come back from trying situations and claim victories in the face of certain defeats - and doing that consistently, while at it. And as the team down under showed it before, it is this ability that would propel the team to greater heights than individual crowning achievements.
Tail - Attitude before was such, that 5 or 6 specialist batsmen, leaning on the wicketkeeper to belt a few balls around, an allrounder, and 4 specialist bowlers, were absolute necessities for a well balanced team. Here came Harbhajan in one of the matches swatting the ball around for a top score of 37 and picking up a few wickets on the other end. And there was promoted Pathan promptly, either for skying the balls over in field within the mandatory period, or stabilizing the effort in case of a wobble....and yeah... he can bowl too. Dhoni can not only keep the fielders on a constant leather hunt, he can also bat sensibly in delicate situations and shepherd the team home to safety....and this is all tail that is in discussion. Knock off Sachin and the team would crumble like a pack of cards was the mantra a few years ago. The team has since turned into a virtual centipede, that a loss of a leg here or the malfunction of a leg there would in no way upset the applecart. While a captain's performance can be evaluated as the sum total of his individual runs and wickets combined with his ability to motivate the team in trying situations, a coach's output is as faceless, as thankless and as intangible as it comes. Ever since Chappell's take over, one could clearly see a strategy evolving - one that involves changing the mindset of the players from being slotted as specialist this or a specialist that, into somebody who could don more than one hat at a time, as the situation demands. As history (and Australia) has shown, this, more than anything, is required to achieve consistency and as the current record of the Indian team shows, it is well on its way.
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