Captain Cool

Captain Cool

“I believe in positive thinking, the Cup will be ours.”

Was captain MS Dhoni being a touch over-confident when he uttered these words in an interview to an Indian newsweekly on the eve of the 10th World Cup and the third to be staged in Asia?

Yes, the World Cup was coming back to the commercial, arguably the spiritual home of cricket for the first time since 1996. But in the 36 years since the inaugural event had been staged in England in 1975, no team had won the final on their own soil.

Dhoni was at least outwardly confident all that would change at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, venue of the final slated for April 2. Even if the team given to him was shaky in bowling and sloppy in fielding, it did boast of one the most awesome batting lineups in world cricket.

If ever there was an event where “Captain Cool” would have to live up to his sobriquet it was now with the entire nation expecting, almost demanding nothing less than the world title. That had last been won famously in 1983 under the leadership of Kapil Dev. But back then India were the no-hopers of one-day cricket. This time the pressure to succeed at home – something India failed to do both in 1987 and 1996 – was enormous.

The Indian team played true to type in the tournament’s inaugural match against Bangladesh at Mirpur. This was a grudge match for the Indians who had crashed out at the first stage of the previous World Cup after being stunned by the same side in their first match in 2007.

It was the batsmen who ensured this time around that there would be no repeat of the 2007 humiliation. Virender Sehwag’s 175 and World Cup debutant Virat Kohli’s 100 not out saw them storm to 370 for four. In reply Bangladesh did well to reach 283 for 9. But though they were never in the contest, the wayward bowling of S. Sreesanth meant the Indian team management had a problem on their hands at the very start of the tournament.

The rest of India’s campaign would be on home soil and it was at Bangalore that the World Cup exploded into action after a tame start.

The India/England encounter produced everything the full house could possibly ask for – except a winner. It was the first tie for both teams in World Cup history and the cracks that appeared in India’s bowling attack in the opening game now just got alarmingly wider.

England were set a huge 339 for victory, more than any team had scored batting second in the World Cup, after Sachin Tendulkar’s brilliant 120. India’s total was impressive but could have been so much higher – they slipped from 305 for three in the 46th to 338 all out in the final over.

England’s charge was led by captain Andrew Strauss whose 158 was the highest score by an Englishman in the World Cup and took them to the doorstep of victory at 280 for 2 in the 43rd over before Zaheer Khan bowled India back into the match. Needing a steep 29 runs from the last two overs, Piyush Chawla was smashed for 15 in the penultimate and now it was left to Munaf Patel. England needed two off the final ball of the pulsating match but could only manage to scramble a single and all of India breathed a sigh of relief.

With India facing Ireland and the Netherlands next, they had some time to catch their breath and try to rally the team after the near-trauma against England.

Ireland though just four days earlier had caused the upset of the tournament when they stunned England and Dhoni knew he could not take them lightly. In the event it was a splendid all-round performance by Yuvraj Singh that saw the Indians through. His best bowling figures of 5 for 31 saw Ireland stumble to 207 all out and just when the jitters began to show again with India at 167 for 5, the left hander steered them home with a calm unbeaten 50.

It was Yuvraj again who was the standout performer in a less than impressive win over the doughty Dutch. There were sterner tests ahead and Dhoni had a battle on his hands.
It was hardly a surprise really when India finally stumbled in their fifth league match against South Africa at Nagpur. The margin may have been narrow – defeat by three wickets with two deliveries to spare – but there was no escaping the writing that was now on the wall.

The knives were out in the media with millions of Indian cricket fans around the world also wracked with doubt. Could their heroes overcome glaring weaknesses in the bowling and fielding departments? Was the mighty batting going to be enough to carry them through?

At Nagpur even the batting let them. At a formidable 267 for one in the 40th over, 350 was a distinct possibility. But in the direst collapse of the World Cup, the last nine wickets crashed for the addition of a measly 29 runs.

The nation and the team looked towards their inspirational captain to hold his nerve and marshal his limited resources. But even he was flabbergasted, stranded on 12 at the other end, gaping in horror as one batsman after another trooped their way back after a blazing start from Sehwag and Tendulkar had come to naught.

After the match Dhoni made a stinging comment to the waiting media: “You don’t play for the crowd, you play for the country.”

The format was such that India were assured of a place in the quarterfinals. It was only a question of which position they would finish in, and after they defeated West Indies by 80 runs in Chennai – thanks to a maiden World Cup century by Yuvraj Singh – they ended up second to South Africa in Group B, with West Indies and England also going through.

They were joined from Group A by Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand in the quarterfinals. No surprises there but India now found themselves up against their most formidable challenge yet as the World Cup entered the nervy knockout stage.

It was to be India against Australia, champions of the last three World Cups in the big ticket match at Ahmedabad. Do-or-die time had arrived for all eight sides.

It was billed as the final-before-the-final and had all the elements of a summit clash. Ricky Ponting’s defiant century saw Australia to 260. It could have been much more but the Indian fielders raised their game just when needed.
If the fielding was electric, the heat was oppressive and the atmosphere was heavy with tension as the Indian reply staggered to 187 for 5 with the exit of Dhoni. The crowd of 51,000 gasped, then held its collective breath as the nervy Suresh Raina came out to join Yuvraj, India needing 74 runs from 69 balls.

As he walked back the captain whispered a barely audible: “Shabaash Yuvraj, stay till the end” to India’s crisis man.
Inspired, that is just what he did and with Raina rising to the occasion, the two left-handers with a series of bold strokes grabbed the initiative from Australia’s flagging fast bowlers.

Yuvraj – Man of the Match for the fourth time – ended it all with a flourish with two overs to go. Down on his knees, pumping his fists with a mix of joy and relief, now finally the moment had arrived when the entire nation joined the team in the conviction they had shared with their leader from the start – that this was destined to be India’s Cup.

Now what could possibly top the pressure of an India/Australia clash? Why, an India/Pakistan match-up in the semi-final of course!

A dream for cricket lovers around the world no doubt but a nightmare for the players of both sides. With the heads of state of India and Pakistan present at the ground, a cricket match had been converted into a mini-summit. As if the pressure of a World Cup semi-final was not enough already.
The last time the two nations found themselves in a World Cup knockout match was in the quarter-finals at Bangalore back in 1996. Four times they had met on cricket’s biggest stage and each time India had run out comfortable winners. It would be no different this time.

The Pakistanis were woeful in the field, giving Tendulkar four “lives” and lackadaisical with the bat. What should have been a high octane encounter fizzled out in the end though it did have its moments, enough to keep the cricket world riveted to Mohali.

India, losing finalists in 2003 and Sri Lanka, runners up in 2007 knew each other’s games inside out since bilateral visits had become routine by now. The final between them at Mumbai would be decided by the side that held its nerve best.

Nerves were indeed jangling as Mahela Jayawardene guided the Lankans to a challenging 274 for 6 with a sublime innings of 103 not out.

On five previous occasions batsmen scoring a century had finished on the winning side in a World Cup final. But the Indians were determined to write their own chapter in cricket history under the lights of the modernized Wankhede Stadium.

When Lasith Malinga blasted out openers Sehwag and Tendulkar to leave India tottering on 31 for two an eerie silence descended over the ground.

Nerves were settled as Gautam Gambhir and Kohli added 83 but when Kohli fell for 35 at 114 for three, the target still appeared distant and daunting.

In what was to be the decisive moment of the match, Dhoni decided to promote himself ahead of the inform Yuvraj. It turned out to be a master stroke but could so easily have been his undoing.

The captain’s highest contribution with the bat so far in the tournament had been 34. Now something extraordinary was needed and Dhoni did just that. With Gambhir providing rock-solid support, Dhoni took on the bowlers and was the dominant partner in a stand worth 109 which was only broken when the opener fell three short of his century.

Dhoni settled the issue in grand style, a massive six off Nuwan Kulasekara with Yuvraj at the other end. It set off massive celebrations at the ground and around the country as millions of fans turned their cities, towns and villages into an all-night party zone.

Thus Dhoni entered the pantheon of India’s cricket demi-gods, emulating Kapil Dev’s feat of 1983 and adding a second world title in four years, following victory in the inaugural World T20 in 2007. The Cup belonged to the team and the nation, the Man of the Match award to the captain for his epochal 91 not out and the Man of the Tournament to Yuvraj. With India also ranked the Number one Test playing nation in the world under this captaincy, Dhoni’s fame and fortune was now unparalleled in the history of Indian sport.
He deserved every bit of it. While at the ground the team chaired Tendulkar and coach Gary Kirsten (in his last match with the Indian team) on their shoulders, the captain preferred to keep a low profile. When someone pointed out that he should be the one hoisted by his teammates, he gestured towards Tendulkar and said “it is his night.”

It was Dhoni who stuck to his guns despite criticism over some of his early decisions, coaxing his players to lift their fielding standards, marshalling his resources and taking the heat off his teammates by tackling the media after every match.

Cruelly, there was barely any time for the players to celebrate and relax with their families and loved ones. In less than a week it was back to the grind with IPL IV unfolding. And the onus was once again on Dhoni to defend the title Chennai Super Kings had won the previous year.
Dhoni expressed the feelings of his teammates when he admitted it would feel strange to oppose on the field those players with whom he had shared a dressing room in the national side just weeks earlier. But there was no way the fans could be persuaded this was the real thing after the high of being crowned world champions. They stayed away in droves and IPL IV turned out to be a giant flop.

Not for CSK though. They became the first side in the short history to win back-to-back titles. Captain Dhoni it seemed could do no wrong. He was the toast of his adopted city as the MA Chidambaram Stadium became a virtual fortress for CSK which became the first team to win all seven of their home ties. That took them into the “first qualifying final” where they trounced Royal Challengers Bangalore by six wickets in Mumbai.

Four days later CSK were up against RCB again in the final. But with the match being played at Chennai there could be only one winner and Dhoni’s men had it easy once again, getting home in a canter by 58 runs. Claiming the Fair Play award as well was a bonus and it led former India all-rounder, Chennai’s own WV Raman to label Dhoni “one of the best captains the world has seen.”

Once again the fatigue factor set in and Dhoni and other top players skipped the ODI series in the West Indies where India, led by Raina, won by a comfortable 3-2 margin.
The increasing demands on Dhoni in all forms of the game had, since the advent of the IPL, seen him become selective in picking and choosing his tours. Under the circumstances it was hard to fault him though an Indian cricketer asking to take a break in the IPL due to fatigue is unlikely to ever occur.

The three Test series was won by India after they claimed the first Test at Kingston, Jamaica by 63 runs. The normally unflappable Dhoni found himself in the middle of a series of incidents that were the talking points of the series more than the cricket itself.

The third and final Test was to be the swansong of Australian umpire Darryl Harper. But he quit in a huff after the Kingston Test, condemning both the attitude of the Indian players who challenged his decisions, and the ICC for not supporting him. The last straw for Harper apparently was Dhoni’s pointed remark to the media at the end of the Test: “If the correct decisions were made, the game would have finished much earlier, and we would be in our hotel by now.”
Dhoni’s mood could hardly have improved after a technical blunder saw him dismissed in the first innings of the second Test at Bridgetown, Barbados. Umpire Ian Gould asked for a replay as he had doubts over the legitimacy of Fidel Edwards’ delivery. But a previous delivery was shown instead and Dhoni was sent back. Later it was revealed that Edwards had indeed overstepped, leading to an apology from the production team of the host broadcaster.

The match saw a bold declaration by the Indian captain on the final day at 269 for six, setting West Indies 280 to win in 77 overs. They struggled to 202 for 7 in 71.3 before the umpires called off play due to bad light.

That boldness though seemingly abandoned Dhoni in the third Test at Dominica. He had the chance to become the first Indian captain to win two Tests in the Caribbean when the fourth innings target was 180 from 47 overs, coming down to 86 from the last 15 overs.

The crowd was stunned to see the Indian pair of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman walk off the field at this stage and it emerged that the two captains had decided to call off the match. For a team ranked number one in the world this was a meek performance leading West Indies skipper Darren Sammy to comment: “We were surprised. We thought with guys like Dhoni left, India would go for it.” Indian coach Duncan Fletcher defended the decision, claiming “it was an easy wicket to survive but a difficult track to score runs quickly.”

By the end of the series Dhoni had emerged as the second most successful Indian skipper with 15 wins from 27 Tests, second only to Sourav Ganguly’s 21 from 49. It was a wonderful record.

But disaster was lurking just round the corner. And it was in England that Dhoni and the Indian team would meet their Waterloo.

Truth to tell, the writing was on the wall from the start. India were ranked number one in the world in Test cricket and had just been crowned World Cup champions as well. But they came into the series with just one warm-up three-day match against Somerset and with most of the squad flying in straight from the Caribbean. They were under-cooked and under-prepared for the onslaught from a thoroughly professional English team.

With some of the players carrying niggles into the series and others picking up injuries during the matches, the captain found himself in charge of a squad that constantly needing tinkering and replacements. In all, seven players during the Test series, and another two in the ODI series that followed were rendered hors de combat.

It was the 2000th Test match and 100th between India and England and with Tendulkar on 99 international centuries, worldwide interest was huge for the first Test at Lord’s which saw packed houses on all five days.

But at the end captain Dhoni was to rue his luck. “Everything that could wrong went wrong,” he said and indeed his woes began on the very first day.

Pace spearhead Zaheer Khan had missed the preceding West Indies tour with an ankle injury and had looked unfit against Somerset too. Now with Dhoni putting England in after winning the toss, the left armer prised out openers Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss before limping off with a hamstring injury in his 14th over.

That was the end of the series for Zaheer and India never recovered from his absence. Despite a few ups and downs, England were always the dominant side and the heroics of Praveen Kumar with ball and Dravid with the bat went in vain as India went down by 196 runs. So frustrated was Dhoni with his lack of bowling resources after Zaheer’s exit that he even gave himself the ball and turned his arm over for eight overs in England’s second innings.

India had their moments in the second Test at Trent Bridge. In fact till the end of the second day they looked marginally the better side. But after that it was England all the way and as the Indian challenge faded away, England stormed home by the crushing margin of 319 runs.
The turnaround was led Ian Bell’s second innings century with England recovering from 57 for two for 544 all out and once again it was only Praveen Kumar and Dravid, with another century in the first innings, who emerged with any credit. The Man of the Match award however went to all rounder Stuart Broad who became the first bowler in India/England Test matches to claim a hat trick besides innings of 64 and 44.

Dhoni had another miserable match with the bat but it was his gesture of withdrawing the run out appeal against Bell at the stroke of tea on the third day and allowing Bell to resume his innings under highly contentious circumstances that grabbed much of the headlines as England stormed to a 2-0 lead in the series.

Now England needed one more win to topple India off their perch and claim the number one Test position and they did it in emphatic style as India were crushed by an innings and 242 runs in the third Test at Edgbaston to revive the horrors of 1974.

India’s miserable scores of 224 and 244 was less than that scored by one man, England opener Alastair Cook and his massive 294 took England to an impregnable 710 for 7 declared.

Dhoni top scored for India in both innings but his scores of 77 and 74 not out were cold comfort as for the first time in his captaincy career he felt the bitter taste of a series defeat.

The rout was complete and the whitewash was stark as India were once again routed by an innings in the fourth and final Test at the Oval. It was the first time since Australia in 1968 that India had lost all four Tests in a series and for a side that had been ranked number one at the start of the series, the fall from grace could not have been more calamitous.

Dhoni managed to keep his composure as he was bombarded with tough questions at the end of the match and the series. Inevitably, the spotlight was on the IPL and how it had adversely affected India’s Test match preparations. Dhoni put up a brave front but he really had no answers as to how India could have been so comprehensively defeated with Dravid’s third century of the series at the Oval once again the lone saving grace for the vanquished.

There was no respite in the T20 match – lost by six wickets – and the ODI series that followed either. The tie in the fourth game at Lord’s was the closest the Indians came to winning an international match all tour as they were beaten 3-0 and Dhoni’s Man of the Series award for three half-centuries was just about the only crumb of comfort he could take back with him.

Writing in the Sportstar at the end of the tour, English columnist Ted Corbett expressed sympathy for Dhoni. “In common with every other captain Dhoni has made tactical mistakes but he has never failed to lead…the weight of responsibility has been so great that a poor run of batting form [in the Test series] was only to be expected – Dhoni has found many friends and admirers since he arrived in this country and there will be a wave of disappointment if he is blamed for the appalling results of the last few weeks.”

Dhoni’s woes continued in the Champions League in which Chennai Super Kings were the holders. They beat Cape Cobras but lost to Mumbai Indians, Trinidad and Tobago and New South Wales to go out in the group stage with MI winning the title.

Now less than a month since they met in the fifth and final ODI at Cardiff, England were in India for five ODIs. Cries of revenge were in the air and on the airwaves but even though India did gain a modicum of revenge by whitewashing England 5-0, it hardly made up for the indignities suffered during those three miserable months in England. For the second successive series Dhoni’s batting won him the Man of the Series award proving he was still a potent force with the bat, at least in ODIs.

Writing in the Sporstar (October 14, 2011 issue) on the eve of the ODI series, former Test all-rounder WV Raman expressed the concern that the strain may be proving too much for Dhoni. “The chances of Dhoni getting jaded, both mentally and physically are high and there will come a time when he has to take a break. He can get drained completely at some point given the fact that he plays in all formats of the game and executes various demanding roles.”

That break came a month after Raman’s column in the five-match ODI series against the visiting West Indies which India won 4-1. Sehwag and Gambhir led in his absence and the series was marked by the new world ODI record of 219 by Sehwag in the fourth match at Indore.

India had easily won the three-Test series that preceded the ODIs with wins at New Delhi and Kolkata and a dramatic draw at Mumbai where India finished nine down and the scores level. Dhoni smashed a swashbuckling 144 from 175 balls in the second Test at Kolkata with 10 fours and five sixes. It was his fifth Test century, all coming on the subcontinent.

The year ended with India heading to Australia for a highly anticipated series. Despite the whitewash suffered in England, it was India that started the series as favourites since the Australians were a team in transition and were still smarting from setbacks against South Africa and New Zealand under the new leadership pairing of captain Michael Clarke and coach Mickey Arthur.

India had never won a Test series Down Under and the pundits felt this would be their first chance. But Australia took the early lead in the series winning the Melbourne Boxing Day Test by 122 runs to see out a mixed 2011 for India, world champions in 50 overs, not so much joy in Test cricket.

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