Cricket is such a great leveler that fortunes can soar or plummet, careers can be made or marred, opinions can fluctuate like the sensex and reputations can be enhanced or left in tatters, within a matter of days. The Indian team which had been flying high with three consecutive victories in the one-day series against New Zealand was brought rudely down to earth by a devastating defeat in the final encounter on Saturday. The same opponents, who had looked bedazzled, wonder-struck and clueless in the previous matches, came up with such a tour-de-force at Hamilton that it was India’s turn to look out of breath as a unit.
Not that one defeat should halt the march of one of the most exciting Indian teams in history. It is just that the euphoria over the brilliant performances of Dhoni’s team was so exuberant that certain basic weaknesses were overlooked. The Indians have undoubtedly been blessed with some of the most aggressive and destructive batsmen of our time at one go. Sehwag, Raina, Yuvraj, Pathan and Gambhir could destroy any bowling attack on their day, and they have indeed done so with amazing regularity. While this approach should lead to victories in most 20-20 matches for sure, they have to plan better for the 50 over game. Even though they lost both 20-20 games and won 3 out of 4 of the completed 50 over games that they have played on the current tour, their approach suggests that they are more likely to scale unprecedented heights in the shortest version of the game than in the 50 over version. In the 20 over format, even if quick wickets fall, there is not enough time for a team to collapse without utilizing their full quota of overs, unless they play really terribly! The world champions are thus well poised to retain their ICC World 20-20 title in England this June, given the extent of the firepower they possess.
India’s best ODI game of the just concluded series was the third one, in which they scored 392 (thanks to Tendulkar, Yuvraj, Dhoni and Raina) and won, in spite of the fact that the Kiwis ran them quite close in the chase. The other satisfying finish was the Sehwag-Gambhir show in the fourth game, wherein the master destroyer blasted India’s fastest ever ODI century while Gambhir played the waiting/supporting game.
The fact that winning cricket matches does not just depend on the slam-bang approach, is well known. Strategy, technique and playing according to the state of the game are important elements of cricket too. Dhoni has shown great acumen and understanding of the finer aspects of the game and he would have realized that the Indians took their foot off the pedal, to their peril, in the final match on Saturday.
While the impact of that crushing defeat, on the Test series, would be known soon enough, what India must realize immediately is that the difference between a great team and a good team is simply the fact that true champions never give in without a fight. All in all, with 3 matches lost and 3 won on the tour so far (with one no result), India have a lot to play for in the Test Matches. The addition of specialists like Dravid, Laxman and Balaji should bolster the Indian line-up significantly in the five day version. Tendulkar, after his injury-break, following his magnificent knock of 163 runs in the third ODI, would be raring to go, as would Sehwag who, strangely enough, has always looked even more at home on the Test Match stage than on any other.
The manner in which Virender ‘the Destroyer’ started the tour, with sixes off each of the first three balls he faced in the first 20-20 game, left us gasping in awe. Even the great Vivian Richards would have been proud of the way in which Sehwag goes about spanking perfectly respectable bowling attacks. His form continued in the ODI’s too, with good length balls disappearing into the stands with alarming regularity. Those who think that his 60 ball century will take a while to be bettered in ODI’s, better think again, for Sehwag has the power and panache to break his own record many a time over in the coming years.
Another star performer in the series was Yuvraj Singh, who seems more at ease at the crease nowadays than he has ever looked in his career. His imperious presence not only uplifts the morale of his batting partners but also instills the fear of God in the hearts of the opponents. His clean hits could clear any ground in the world, but he is particularly devastating on the small Kiwi grounds. Suresh Raina too looked in such sublime touch that he couldn’t play a false stroke till the final match, when the Indians fell like a pack of cards.
Dhoni, Gambhir, Harbhajan and Zaheer came up with useful performances too, and Yusuf Pathan pitched in with a few important wickets. The Pathan brothers better watch out however, for they may be labeled only as 20-20 players, if their current performance-level in the ODI format continues. Overall India’s fielding and bowling were below par and it was only their batting which really flourished in the limited over games against the Kiwis. Time and again the Kiwis threatened to stage as effective an onslaught as the ones affected by the Indians with their hell-for-leather batting approach. They would be equally dangerous in the Tests, with the best left arm spinner in the world, skipper Daniel Vettori, along with exciting players like Jesse Ryder, Martin Guptill and Ross Taylor in their ranks.
All in all though, the Indians are on a roll under the tutelage of the wily Gary Kirsten, aided by Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh. But they would have to tighten their fielding and their bowling in the coming months. Sterner tests await them on their road towards becoming the best team in the world. We shall be watching very closely!