Walking into the press conference at the end of the second Test on Tuesday,M S Dhoni told an Australian reporter by way of greeting,Now,it is my turn to smile. A few minutes earlier,sitting on the same chair,the gloom on Michael Clarkes face had increased with each question that came his way: on Australias batting collapse in the morning the last 7 wickets fell for 25 runs and the innings and 135-run defeat. The skippers look was that of the hopelessness that comes with a 0-2 score in a four-Test series.
Just a year back,it was Dhoni who was answering the same question,wearing that gloomy-face mask and leading a disillusioned,disjointed team.
Back then,Clarke was playing the smirking backyard bully,enjoying being hailed as Ricky Pontings worthy successor. The wheel has turned and the roles have been reversed since Indias 0-4 rout during the 2011-12 away tour. Two popular,well-attended Test home wins,in Chennai and Hyderabad,have changed the general perception about the team and its captain.
At the team hotel,a giant cake awaited the men in soiled whites who had many reasons to celebrate. Dhoni had become the most successful Indian Test captain ever,the win here taking him past Sourav Gangulys victory count of 21. The timely captaincy high,coming on the heels of his match-winning first double hundred in the previous Test,has closed all leadership debates across all zones around the country.
Besides Dhoni,those who had icing smeared on their face were Cheteshwar Pujara,Murali Vijay,Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin. In the celebration around the young heroes all in their mid-20s the recently retired 35-plus were not missed; the remaining seniors,in the same age bracket,too escaped scrutiny.
Hyderabad also saw Dhoni getting back his old Midas touch. With eight Aussie wickets to take,the captain opened with Ishant Sharma not Bhuvneshwar Kumar who had got him the breakthrough in the first innings. Next to bowl was Ravindra Jadeja not Ashwin who had got the Australian openers from the same end on Monday.
Ishant was to get his captain the all-important wicket of Shane Watson. And among Jadejas three was the prized scalp of Clarke. Despite the calls for change,Dhoni had backed out-of-form opener Vijay,refusing to swap him for Shikhar Dhawan. And he had not heeded calls to replace Harbhajan Singh with local boy Pragyan Ojha.
By around 2 pm,the Indians had showered,gelled,changed into their evening casuals,and were ready to explore Hyderabad. The Australians were still at the stadium,finishing an extended session at the nets.
At the press conference,Captain Clarke was being Pup. He looked lost and crestfallen. He wasnt sure if batting at No. 5 was right for him,or whether the teams other experienced big name,Shane Watson,should open.
The only thing he said with certainty was: You dont get better as a player by sitting on the couch doing nothing. Weve got nine days to do everything in our power to get better. Spoken in a stern voice,the statement made it clear that the mid-series break before the third Test starting in Mohali on March 14 might not see a short trip on the Jaipur-Agra tourist circuit for the visitors.
After the media interaction,Clarke headed to the ground where the entire Australian squad,including the support staff and even Mathew Hayden from the commentary box,stood around. Men in Aussie training gear huddled at the central square as a set of spinners bowled at eager batsmen. As he walked slowly towards his men,a lot wouldve been going through Clarkes mind.
Two away losses can change the general perception about a team and its captain. Just three months ago,Clarke,then in the form of his life,playing at home against the mighty South Africans,was just a Test win away from being the captain of the worlds top-ranked team. On Tuesday,he found himself two losses away from being written off.