The most interesting aspect of a long cricket tour is following the stories that emanate before the first match,when the visiting team are trying to get used to the conditions and feel comfortable in their new surroundings.
For the hosts,its usually the time for mind games for riling the tourists by cleverly using the media or,in some cases,for openly intimidating key players by leaking how they have been specifically targeted.
But when India arrived in New Zealand this time,there was no edge in any of the welcome addresses no lack of warmth,no fine for dirty shoes and,most notably,every Kiwi player who had a microphone in front of him praised the Indians as the No 1 in the world. They even went out of their way to promise that the conditions would be far more suitable for MS Dhoni & Co than they had been for Sourav Gangulys team during the nightmarish tour of 2002.
The travelling Indian reporters,prepared for a fiery opening salvo,were pleasantly surprised. They concluded that the hosts were being quintessentially Kiwi mild-mannered,unassuming,and appreciative of the talented bunch of cricketers who had descended on their turf.
The mind games were missing,they happily proclaimed,and Indias status as favourites was enhanced because Daniel Vettoris team so willingly embraced the underdog tag despite their overwhelming home advantage.
But after the first two matches T20 games that may not be the most crucial assignments of the tour but could still set the tone for the next 40 days Im starting to wonder if Team India were subtly manipulated without them even coming to know.
After all,what can be a better mind game than leading your opposition up a garden path,almost behaving like youve given up even before the start of the match,and then beating them convincingly?
One of the biggest weaknesses of the human race,perhaps more enhanced than usual in Indians,is the joy we derive from being told how good we are. With us,flattery will get you everywhere.
Team India,riding high on their T20 World Championship win,their spate of recent successes,and the accolades they received in New Zealand,went into the first match as if it was a five-over contest. They ended up losing too many early wickets. In the next,determined to make sure they played out the 20 overs,they lost their fluency,and stumbled again after some bad decisions at the crease and at the top of their run-ups.
As the one-day series begins this morning,India have hopefully learnt from their mistakes and will attempt to start the series anew,with the focus they had when they landed in New Zealand rather than the complacency they seemed to settle into,with a little help from their gracious hosts.
Losing two T20 matches is too trivial a matter to sound the death knell its more than probable that India will hit back hard in the days to follow but,just like winning,losing has an uncanny knack of becoming a habit.
Im bringing this up because I saw it happen not too long ago to another high-flying Indian team. After their 1-1 draw in Australia and a resounding victory in Pakistan,India had gone to the 2004 Asia Cup in Sri Lanka feeling the world was at their feet. Cocky and almost smug,they lost a few matches and thought nothing of it because much bigger prizes had already been won. But soon it reached a stage where they couldnt buy a victory,and slowly disintegrated despite having heaps of talent at their disposal.
Dhonis team will have to keep that in mind as this series wears on. No harm has been done yet,but the early trend will have to be bucked soon if their ambition to genuinely don the No 1 mantle has to remain on track.