The Indian team did a rather unusual thing on Sunday night after they won the T20 series against Sri Lanka in Visakhapatnam. As soon as the presentation ceremony ended, they went for a victory lap around the stadium, something MS Dhoni’s men generally don’t indulge in bilateral series at home. Read what you want into that episode, but in the bigger picture, Dhoni does have a few reasons to be happy about.
Yet again, things have fallen in place for Dhoni ahead of a marquee tournament. He has a fascinating track record of such happenstance, but let’s first start with the latest developments. Calls for removing Dhoni with Virat Kohli as the captain for shorter formats was growing louder. Even the BCCI had to publicly defend the incumbent skipper following the team selection meeting for the ODI and T20 series in Australia. The side had been walking limp barely a month ago. The one-day team had a poor 2015 after sparkling in the World Cup, losing the series in Bangladesh, against South Africa at home, and being swept away 1-4 in Australia. The T20 team too hadn’t started well, losing at home to South Africa.
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The cricket board sought stability but Dhoni’s team was still struggling to hit their straps until Jasprit Bumrah became a surprise inclusion for the final one-dayer at the SCG. For so long the captain had been calling for bowling discipline from his quickies. And as helped arrived from an unexpected quarter, Dhoni was once again in his element.
Just ponder over this thought: Bhumrah wouldn’t have possibly entered the fray if not for Mohammad Shami’s injury.
He replaced Shami in the T20 squad, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s injury allowed him to play and do well in the final ODI against Australia. Ashwin, who opened the bowling in Ranchi and Visakhapatnam, was the hero of the series against the Islanders, but Dhoni agreed that Bumrah’s ability to mix it up and bowl yorkers at the death had allowed him to give the new ball to his premier off-spinner.
Call it champion’s luck or whatever you like, Dhoni has once again managed to iron out the problems ahead of a high-profile tournament. Very few outside the Indian cricket circuit knew Bumrah a month ago but the Gujarat seamer has now become a very vital cog in the team’s wheel. The past failures already seem like a blur after they effected a clean sweep in the T20s in Australia, and came from behind to beat Sri Lanka at home.
The selection was carefully tailored for the T20 World Cup and now, after winning five of the last six T20 games, the team has seemingly covered all bases. More or less, they have firmed up the team combination — the playing XI even — and have played an unchanged line-up (Ajinkya Rahane for Virat Kohli, who was rested against Sri Lanka, was the only change) took the field. India will start as top favourites in the upcoming world T20.
Getting it right, always
The most fascinating thing about all this is that it isn’t something new. They somehow manage to find the team just in the nick of time — sometimes a series before the big event, or at times find themselves in the big tournaments itself. Dhoni has guided the team to World T20, World Cup and Champions Trophy titles and almost every time his teams managed to overcome the odds to be triumphant. India under him have always risen to the occasions during big events. In fact, only in the 2011 World Cup they carried a winning momentum to the tournament.
When India triumphed in the first World T20 in South Africa, unheralded Joginder Sharma became the hero in the final. Winning the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy in England was an even better feat.
Two years previously, the Test team led by Dhoni was hammered 4-0 in England. A 4-0 whitewash in Australia followed. India had even lost a three-match home ODI series against Pakistan in the lead-up to the Champions Trophy. But Dhoni managed to forge a spin partnership between R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja — they shared 20 wickets between them — on foreign soil and then, under pressure in the final, Ishant Sharma dismissed Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara in successive deliveries to secure victory.
The last World T20 was held in Bangladesh and India went there on the heels of a shabby performance in the Asia Cup. But as the marquee event arrived the juggernaut started to roll until it was stopped by Sri Lanka in the final. The 50-over World Cup in Australia last year followed a similar pattern. India couldn’t even qualify for the final in the tri-series Down Under that preceded the quadrennial showpiece but as the World Cup started, they were a changed side. Three fast bowlers — Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma — found their line and length, and wicket-taking mojo to help the team win eight matches on the bounce before co-hosts Australia stopped them in the semi-final.
Dhoni is a master of understatement but even he declared at the post-match press conference on Sunday that the playing XI for the World T20 has been all but ready. Someone curiously asked him about Kohli’s impending return and whom he would replace. “I don’t think that’s too difficult to answer. You can ask anyone whom he will replace. I don’t think it is difficult looking at the last three matches whom he will replace,” the skipper said, ostensibly hinting at his make-shift No. 3 for the games against Sri Lanka. Ajinkya Rahane is too good a player across formats to be a subject of such indifference, but it’s horses for courses for the team management and Yuvraj Singh’s allround ability — although not in top shape yet — adds to the balance.
Dhoni stopped short of calling India favourites but elaborated his team’s credentials. “We are always a top contender when it comes to shorter formats. Also, with the world cup to be held in India we know the spinners will come into action. It gives us the added benefit. Also the exposure of having played the IPL over here.
“Out of eight seasons we have played seven seasons in India. We have got a lot of players, especially ones who are the part of the team, who have got very good experience of playing in India. All of that will definitely count but the shortest format really does is it narrows down the difference between the two teams. What you have to do is keep the big hitters out of the game. Also the knockout games, you have to be at your best. Once the knockout stage starts it is more like lottery cricket. To be consistent is something that is very important.”
Seen in this context, that Indian team’s lap of honour on Sunday must have felt satisfying. After the batting meltdown on a spicy pitch in Pune, they needed to respond. And provided with ‘home conditions’ in Ranchi and Visakhapatnam, the side did that magnificently. If the World T20 throws up similar spin-friendly surfaces, India will be the team to be beat.