What Dhoni has managed is to instill a sense of self-belief in these boys – sometimes disproportionate to their abilities – and this has helped them look the opposition in the eye, reports Anand Vasu.
First triumph in the ICC World Twenty20, then a tri-series win Australia including a sweep of the finals, now India’s first-ever bilateral ODI series win in Sri Lanka.
It has been 23 years and three tours coming, and given how similar the conditions are on this little island to the ones back home in India, you might think there was nothing special about it. But both the decisive result – Sri Lanka shut out with a match to play – and the manner in which it was achieved were anything but ordinary.
Somehow, Indian teams have always found Sri Lanka difficult opponents in their own conditions. Sure, India reached the final of a Champions Trophy here, only to be stymied by rain on the day of the scheduled final and the reserve day, and there have been other gains in multi-team tournaments. But when it has been a two-horse race between the Lankans and the Indians, on this island India have always been left far behind.
To say the difference is Mahendra Singh Dhoni would be over-simplifying things, because a captain is only as good as his team. And it is not as though lesser men had led teams to Sri Lanka in the past – from Mohammad Azharuddin to Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly to Rahul Dravid, many men have had a go, and returned with a slap on the wrist. What Dhoni has done with his young team – and it is truly his team – is bring a strength of resolve that you just do not expect from cricketers so young that they barely have a season or two of cricket under the belt. What Dhoni has managed is to instill a sense of self-belief in these boys – sometimes disproportionate to their abilities – and this has helped them look the opposition in the eye, in tight situations, and not blink. Since the second game in Dambulla, India have barely taken a backward step, and it seems that nothing the Sri Lankans did could unsettle India from the plans they laid. Zaheer Khan was unleashed with the single purpose of pulling the rug from under a strong top-order and he has done that with spells so stirring you wonder why he did not bowl like this earlier in his career. Sri Lanka relied heavily on Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene – although the captain will deny this – and repeatedly Zaheer knocked out two of the three to leave the other Indian bowlers in prime position to run amok.
If Zaheer played his part to perfection, Praveen Kumar and Munaf Patel certainly did not disappoint, edging in with crucial breakthroughs and tight spells in conditions that did just enough to keep seam bowlers interested. Where the fast men left off Harbhajan Singh climbed in, either keeping his end tight, if required, or attacking with guile and aggression, when the opportunity was afforded to him.
The bulk of the run-scoring was done by Dhoni himself, but Suresh Raina showed that big scores against the likes of Hong Kong were not where his abilities ended. Dhoni, after cleverly declaring in public that Ajantha Mendis was "the most unusual" bowler he had seen, systematically showed his team a way to tackle the mystery spinner. With the best batsmen in the country falling prey to Mendis in the Tests, the stage was set for the novices to be routed a la the Asia Cup, where Mendis took 6 for 13. In this light, the performances of Virat Kohli, Dhoni, Raina, and S Badrinath were a breath of fresh air. While not rash, there was certainly a fearlessness that they brought to the crease that sits aptly with the kind of team Dhoni has moulded in the limited-overs game. From being rank outsiders, India will leave Sri Lanka with a trophy in the bag and smiles on their faces, irrespective of what happens in the final game.