A month ago, when MS Dhoni addressed the media prior to the team’s departure for Australia, there was a touch of uncertainty everywhere — from death bowling to middle-order batting; even the spin-bowling combination. Things have changed since, thanks to a purple patch of sorts. Little wonder then that India’s limited-overs captain looked relaxed and completely assured as he attended the team’s pre-departure press conference for the Asia Cup, tweaked into a T20 tournament with the World Cup in picture. And before the big event it’s perhaps the last chance to experiment with the team combination. So unsurprisingly, Dhoni hinted at squad rotation.
It sounds a tad curious, given India’s recent success in T20 internationals has been based on sticking to stability. Dhoni didn’t change the team composition during India’s 3-0 clean sweep Down Under, while Ajinkya Rahane for Virat Kohli — who was rested — was the only alteration to the playing eleven in the home series against Sri Lanka. Kohli has returned, which means Rahane once again will have to sit out. But winning begets confidence and Dhoni feels he is in a position to experiment a bit. The likes of Rahane, Harbhajan Singh and Pawan Negi can expect some game time before the ICC event.
“I have the belief that we have the talent required to win a big tournament. This team has all the ingredients but what will be important is to keep the team fit and try to give as many games as possible to all the individuals who are part of the side,” he said.
Dhoni has to pick his moments. A full-strength Sri Lanka, arch-rivals Pakistan and Bangladesh at home form an ultra-strong field for the Asia Cup and the team management would be keen to ensure the winning momentum doesn’t slip. Dhoni put things in perspective. “It (rotation) will depend on where we are positioned in the tournament. After that we have two games before the World T20 starts. If everyone gets a chance, it will be good for the team.”
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According to him, what has really changed, in the T20 context, over the last one-odd month is that the fast bowlers have bowled well. “Death bowling is an area of concern in the 50-over format, where slogging usually starts from 40 overs onwards. In T20 cricket, it is basically the last three-four overs, or at times only the last two overs. So we should keep the two formats separate. What has happened in the last few matches is that fast bowlers have bowled well whenever they have come at the back end of the innings.”
This resurgence is down to the comeback man Ashish Nehra and the callow Gujarat seamer Jasprit Bumrah. Together they have taken 16 wickets — Nehra’s economy rate 8.00, Bumrah’s 6.77 — in the six T20 internationals they have played this year. And India have won five of those matches. Their performance has given Dhoni the cushion to give the new ball to R Ashwin against Sri Lanka. Also, the pace bowling duo has more than made up for Mohammed Shami’s absence. The Bengal fast bowler has been ruled out of the Asia Cup as well but he is still in the squad for World T20 and the team management is happy to allow him the extra leeway.
“We had to announce the 15-member squad a month before the World T20. Now it is up to you if you want to pick a guy who can get fit before the tournament. You might not pick him and then you see somebody like a Shami 100 per cent fit in 10 days. That’s why he was selected,” said Dhoni. He added: “He has to prove his fitness and if he isn’t fit then we have replacements waiting.”
India generally don’t play much T20 cricket. But this year — in the run-up to the World T20 — has been different. They have already played six and would feature in a few more high-intensity contests in the Asia Cup. Dhoni acknowledged the benefit. “The good thing when it comes to preparation is that there were three games in Australia. Yes the conditions were different, but we played three T20 internationals against Sri Lanka in India and now (we have) the Asia Cup. It gives you time to settle into the format.
“Now we have got the extra time to get used to everything; fix the roles and responsibilities that individuals would have in the bowling and batting departments. We can also try out a few different things. Often you don’t get much T20 games before the world event. So it’s good in a way and we should get into the groove nicely.”
One thing’s for sure is that the captain won’t tinker with the batting order. To be fair, a line-up of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Kohli and Suresh Raina from No. 1 to No. 4 allows him very little scope. Dhoni picked Yuvraj Singh, himself and Hardik Pandya for the next three slots and said that those who were placed down the order must make the most of the six to ten deliveries they would be facing. Pandya had lived up to the challenge in the match against Sri Lanka at Ranchi, but Yuvraj didn’t look too convincing. Asia Cup would allow him another opportunity to hit his straps.
Nine years is a long time in cricket. The game has evolved. Dhoni’s hairstyles have changed from the time he won the World T20 in South Africa in 2007. But he insisted his captaincy-style has remained unchanged. “I haven’t changed as a captain. I am 100 per cent the same that I used to be,” he said.
Dhoni seemed a little upset when a reporter asked him about his retirement plans. “You just cannot ask me a question; you also have to give a reason. You have the freedom, but it does not mean you will ask me every day. You can’t keep asking the same questions. The answer remains the same, it is like what is your name — ‘MS Dhoni’, and it will remain the same.”