Dhoni calm as India veer off course
India's last word at the end of a Test series in which they made very few statements was MS Dhoni trying to be heard during his media conference in a committee room at The Oval. As the ICC Test mace was presented to England outside, the PA system played loud celebratory music - Jerusalem, Land of Hope & Glory and more such stirring stuff - while Dhoni answered his questions. In his line of vision was a television showing live pictures of England's players receiving medals and trophies, jumping up and down on stage, their lap of honour. It must have hurt. It better have. Dhoni, not given to many shows of emotion, unsurprisingly, looked neither crushed, nor dejected. He looked as he has always looked as India captain: quite together.
A short while before he spoke to the press, Dhoni had passed a man during the presentation who appeared to have taken the defeat personally: Tiger Pataudi, the first India captain to have won a Test series overseas. Four years ago, Pataudi sat on the steps outside the old dressing rooms at The Oval, with the Indian team, including Dhoni, gathered around him. In a photograph from that day, like everyone else, Pataudi is beaming, sharing the frame with a brand new shining trophy named after his family, for which India and England will forever tussle in Tests. The Pataudi trophy now belongs to England after a 4-0 rout of clinical execution. On the stage, with the game lost well before tea, Pataudi could not even force a manful smile as the Indians walked past him to collect their medals.
Unlike in Dhoni's previous four years as India captain which began, coincidentally, after that 2007 win, a now-famous clinical detachment has been unable to produce a turnaround from his men. India could not bat out the 30-odd more overs that would have saved the final Test and left them with a scrap of at least something from the series, rather than another thumping defeat.
All that India gained from this series were lessons in what not to do in the future. Dhoni talked about what is going to be a perpetual headache over the next few years: grooming the next generation and among them, building a pool of young bowlers. "It's important to not lose bowlers, especially when you are not in the subcontinent, because manoeuvring three specialist bowlers becomes very difficult, and using part-timers, who are usually spinners," he said. "I think it will be very important to groom a few bowlers or [to] have the bench strength. If we keep playing with the same bowlers and don't give exposure to some of the youngsters, we may be forced at some point of time to straightaway bring them in to play Test cricket, which can be tough on them. So I think you need to plan it a bit and hopefully utilise the time in between in the best possible manner."
The defeat to England aside, India, Dhoni said, were going through a "grooming" period. Their challenge would be handling public expectations of victories, based around performances from their most experienced, along with giving a new generation the opportunity to break into the international game. Dhoni said the younger players coming through were of two kinds - those who immediately started "scoring from the first game they play and they are superstars in their own way" and others who took their time.
"It's not like you are always entitled to get those kind of players, which means you will have to start grooming youngsters so that they are able to play in different conditions and different scenarios once there is pressure on them. We need to groom as many youngsters as possible, try to give them confidence by not shuffling them too much. It will all be about giving confidence to the coming generation so that they are at their best when thrown at the top level."
In this series the only "youngsters" to come through were Amit Mishra, ironically with the bat, and Praveen Kumar, for his all-round feistiness. "Definitely we have the talent," Dhoni said, "if you see the players who have been performing for us who have been part of the Test side. Of course they have not been very consistent. We have somebody like a Suresh Raina, we know how talented Rohit Sharma is, Cheteshwar Pujara did decently well in South Africa, Abhinav (Mukund) did a good job in the last two series. I think we have got the talent that is needed, they need to be given the exposure and confidence. I feel that it is not always the technique... technique is important, but it's also the confidence level. If the confidence level is high, people stop talking about the technique because you are scoring runs."
On a pitch that England captain Andrew Strauss called a "little more subcontinental" compared to those for the first three Tests, India produced an almost 1990s-style post-Tendulkar collapse. Seven wickets fell for 21 runs. Seven was also the top score from the last five wickets. It came, not from three of India's top seven batsmen who were part of the crash that followed the Mishra-Tendulkar century partnership, but Ishant Sharma. Ishant's call for a review after being given out caught bat-pad, was perhaps the strongest gesture of defiance in India's nausea-inducing last hour of the Test series.
Dhoni said later that the loss of quick wickets just before the second new ball had led to the slide, after what had begun as India's best day of the tour. "It sets like a panic in the dressing room if you lose wickets in quick succession. We should have been able to stop that but we were not able to, which was the main reason why the game ended so quickly." Dhoni said, "the batting department should have performed a bit better."
Injuries, particularly to key players like Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag, have been cited as one of the reasons for India's failure in England. When asked whether the team should find a way to ensure that its best players are at their fittest for the most important series, Dhoni's answer appeared to indicate that external expectation often dictated how the Indians went about their business. "The expectation level is too high - (it is) one thing that doesn't allow the kind of... I wouldn't say experimentation ... but the kind of procedure that needs to involve the youngsters. When we play any side, we are expected to win and the pressure comes on the same players who have been playing for the past few years. It takes a toll on them, everyone wants to play as many games as possible. How can you say this series is important and that is not, but you don't want to miss players in key series?"
Until this result, Dhoni had not lost a series as captain. When he was asked whether his enthusiasm for the job as leader had begun to dip at any time during the series, he said, "I don't believe in surrendering. This job was given to me when I didn't really expect it and I'm not a person that believes in surrendering. I'm giving it my best shot and that's what it's all about."
For all his success, courage and risk-taking ability, a World Cup-winning captain has, within four months, become part of India's most monumental series surrender in the last decade. It must hurt. It had better. Even if he didn't show it.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo