Australia v India, 2nd Test, Sydney, 4th day January 6, 2012

'This phase will make team stronger' - Dhoni

MS Dhoni believes that this challenging period, during which India have slumped to six straight loss in away Tests, will help him and the team as a whole build character. "In sport you are not destined to only win," he said when asked of how difficult it has been to cope with the trough, especially following his early success as captain. "You'll lose at times. You will face difficult times. That improves you as an individual, and as a skipper.

"If everything comes easily to you, then you don't really appreciate the kind of hard work that goes into it [winning]. This is a phase where I think the team will get stronger. Of course it won't reflect in the result right now, but overall it will really help us know [recognise] the importance of winning and what needs to be done to keep the winning phase going."

There is nothing to hide behind now. India came to Australia with fit players, the best 17 available to do the job - Praveen Kumar's absence being an exception - and had time to acclimatise, but they have lost the first two Tests. They competed for three days in the first Test, but were always behind in the game after the first session in Sydney. Dhoni reiterated the obvious fact that both the batting and bowling departments had failed.

"If you see the last two series, including this one in Australia, we didn't score enough," he said. "We didn't put enough runs on the board. Of course, to win Tests taking 20 wickets is very important but also we need to give that cushion of extra runs on the board, so that the bowlers can plan the opposition out.

"It is a bit of a worry, but the good thing is we saw the batsmen score runs in the second innings. Of course it was not good enough to save the Test, but we have seen in the last couple of Tests, everybody has scored at least a fifty. That gives us an indication that we need to convert those [starts] into big innings."

It needs mention here that four of those fifties came in Sydney when pitch had flattened out, and when the bowlers' intensity was obviously down since they had a 468-run lead behind them. If anything was going to save India, it was big hundreds. The big hundreds were all scored by Australia, which has brought Dhoni's captaincy under immense scrutiny. Especially criticised is his almost formulaic spreading of the field in Melbourne, at the first sight of the Australian lower order. Dhoni spoke about it.

"Usually, when you come out of India, there comes a phase where the ball doesn't do much, and there is not much for the bowlers," he said. "That's the time where we need to improve. Not only as a skipper for me, [but] the plans need to be executed really well. Because you have a few fields in mind, if the bowlers stick to that plan and execute well, it looks very good. But once it starts going wrong, it looks very difficult to manage.

"What could have been done is, bowl a line where you attack a particular target, a particular area, so we force the batsman to go through the covers, and invite him for a drive. If he commits a mistake we will have slip fielders to catch him. If it starts to reverse then change the plan a bit, look to have fielders on the leg side, try to bowl as straight as possible. It's about execution also. With more exposure that's what the bowlers must have learned in the last couple of games. We have looked to attack a bit more with Zaheer [Khan] because he is our main wicket-taking bowler. We don't want him to look to contain any batsmen as such."

When told that Zaheer's economy-rate was actually the best among the Indian bowlers, and asked if attacking and taking wickets wasn't the best way to slow the runs down, he said: "You have to back it up with good bowling. He [Zaheer] is someone who bowls very well according to the field. It's something that can't go just one way. You can't have four or five slips throughout the Test match. Ultimately you have to score what the opposition scores too. It's a combination of both. You have to come up with strategies, what works the best. It's a balance between getting wickets and what kind of partnership the opposition is getting. If they score very quickly you may have an attacking field but it will be difficult to get the amount of runs they score."

It's all stacked up against Dhoni the captain, Dhoni the batsman, and his team. The series can't be won. The Border-Gavaskar trophy can technically be retained. Looking at how things stand now, though, avoiding a whitewash will be an achievement. Dhoni said the team needed to take some time off cricket. On that account the team has done well to lose inside four days, giving them extra time away from the cricket.

"They [the players] have got a fair amount of exposure to the Australian bowlers in the last two Test matches," Dhoni said. "What is important is to switch off from the game. You don't really want to overdo it. There may be a few individuals who want to spend a bit more time on the field, but I feel it's always important to switch off from the cricket. That really helps you de-stress a bit, and come back in a positive state of mind. I feel that rather than spending more and more time practising, what we need to do is spend some time off the field with some recreational activity and get some time off cricket."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo