Five-bowler strategy does the trick
All the pieces finally fell into place for India as they closed their campaign in the league phase of the CB series with an emphatic seven-wicket win against Sri Lanka in Hobart. Mahendra Singh Dhoni couldn't have been happier to reach the final against Australia.
From winning the toss, to restricting the opposition to a small total, to finally chasing down the target well ahead of time, the Indians came full circle and earned a bonus point for their hard work. Keeping in mind ground conditions, India decided to opt for the five-bowler strategy which had worked against Sri Lanka last week in Adelaide. Munaf Patel replaced Sreesanth while Praveen Kumar came in for Virender Sehwag.
It didn't matter for Dhoni that Praveen had gone wicketless and scored just six runs in the tight chase in Adelaide under lights, a game India eventually won. "We would play with five bowlers against Sri Lanka, that was our plan," Dhoni said, adding the reason the team-management went with one batsman less was that they were confident of getting the runs with the rest of the batting order. "We'd batted quite well against Sri Lanka in the past games and someone was always scoring. We just wanted to put pressure by having an extra bowler."
Having played each of the other two teams on more than a couple of occasions in the series, Dhoni understood that there was a need for different strategies. "Swing against Australia and seam for Sri Lanka", he put it succinctly. And he was proved right. Even if Sri Lanka began briskly with Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara taking advantage of some wayward bowling by Ishant Sharma and Munaf in the first 10 overs, India soon bounced back.
Irfan Pathan put the initial breaks by granting no width to the batsmen. At the other end, Praveen was accurate and nerveless; surprising given this was just his second game of the tournament. Deception was the main weapon with which he attacked, and he was a proud hunter at the end of the day with four big wickets bagging the Man-of-the-Match award.
At around 125-130 kph, Praveen's pace is tempting to most batsmen. But his strength lies in the ability to suddenly raise his pace, in addition to the swing he imparts with a fluent side-on action. It was the same today, except that Sri Lanka's top order failed to respect his good deliveries. That fact was lost on Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Chamara Silva, whose disregard earned Praveen his reward.
"He has an element of surprise, has the talent, and can swing it both ways," Dhoni said of Praveen, who himself felt a flat deck made his wickets that much more precious. "The wicket was very good for batting, and the four of us performed well", Praveen said.
A lack of wickets in the two preceding games hadn't dented Praveen's confidence. Strong performances at domestic level, where he is a new-ball bowler for Uttar Pradesh, ensured that. He was the second highest wicket-taker in the 2007-08 Ranji season with 36 wickets from six matches at 16.00 and in the Ranji Trophy final, he had Delhi reeling with first innings figures of 8 for 68.
"I have been bowling well at the domestic level, and now I've got a chance. I don't bowl first change there, I bowl with the new ball and here the ball does not swing after the initial part," Praveen said.
Dhoni felt his first-change repaired the damage of the Sri Lankan assault in the initial overs and thereby negated the advantage the ball gives once it loses its sheen. At 7 for 93, Sri Lanka faced an embarrassing end, but Chamara Kapugedera along with Lasith Malinga managed to do some repair work with a 46-run eighth-wicket partnership before Ishant finished it off.
Right throughout the series, Dhoni has acknowledged his bowlers' efforts. If anything it's the inconsistency in his batting order that has given him some distress. The failure of the openers, especially the low scores of Sachin Tendulkar has become a talking point. But the Indian captain stood firmly behind Tendulkar. "People have been talking about Sachin for all the years I've played. But one should be careful when one writes about him."
With their key batsmen, Tendulkar, who answered his critics with a solid 63, and Yuvraj Singh back among the runs and their bowling improving with each outing, India can look Australia in the eye when the first of the three finals begin in Sydney on March 2.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo