India v Pakistan, Champions Trophy, Group A, Centurion September 25, 2009

Dhoni will be tested by 'favourites' tag

India return to the scene of their World Twenty20 triumph but will have to cope with the burden of being favourites

Just over two years ago, MS Dhoni led an unheralded and inexperienced side to South Africa for an event the ICC considered a trial run. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Zaheer Khan all stayed at home while the rest of the team followed up a full tour of England with participation in the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup.

Few knew what to expect from the event, but a gripping first-round match between India and Pakistan that ended in a tie was followed by six sixes in an over [Yuvraj Singh against England] and a magnificent final where Misbah-ul-Haq and Pakistan fell five runs short. Overnight, the Twenty20 version became the talk of the town, and it could be argued that it was the frenzied interest created by those two India-Pakistan games that paved the way for the Indian Premier League, the Champions League and one-off games like the Stanford Super Series.

It wasn't just the Twenty20 game's stock that went through the roof after that fortnight in South Africa. Dhoni went from being a maverick with an unorthodox array of strokes to the man who could lead Indian cricket past new frontiers. He was the anointed one, the leader who could give Indian cricket a standing on the pitch that was commensurate with its power off it.

After the roughest of baptisms in a seven-match series against Australia at home [they lost 4-2], Dhoni has grown into the job. Tough on his players without being a bully, calm without being comatose and keen on leading by example whenever possible, he and his team have put together two years of solid achievement. It's perhaps no coincidence that Indian cricket's lowest point during that period came in the Test series in Sri Lanka that Dhoni sat out.

Younis Khan, who will walk out to toss with him on Saturday, is certainly an admirer. "He's doing a fantastic job as captain," he said on the eve of the game. "When I first saw him, he was young and energetic and given to the grand gestures. Now he's much calmer, and a real gentleman too. His performances have also improved with time, and he has done really well, for his country and himself."

Progress in the one-day arena has been especially impressive, with series victories in Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and home successes against Pakistan and England. Since January 2008, India have won 30 [and lost 12] of 46 matches, and they go into the game against Pakistan ranked No.1 in the world. Australia have fallen off their perch, hammered home and away by South Africa, while Graeme Smith's side have experienced a blip of their own, thrashed 4-0 in England last year. There isn't one side fit to be compared to the Australians that won three World Cups on the bounce between 1999 and 2007, and the frequent changes in the No.1 ranking reflect that state of flux.

For Dhoni, the current challenge is perhaps the most tricky of all. Back in 2007, he captained a team of rank outsiders. Now, he leads a team considered the best in the world. That brings with it a pressure of its own, and other sides like South Africa have been unable to cope with it in the past.

He's also without three proven match-winners in Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj and Zaheer. Tendulkar and Dravid lend experience and class to the batting order, though it's doubtful whether Dhoni had their names inked in when he was planning for the future. Some of the young tyros that he reposed so much faith in have failed to grab their chances, and at one level, he might find it galling that the old guard could be the difference between success and failure.

The same is true of the bowling as well, with so much resting on Ashish Nehra, who made his debut a decade ago, and Harbhajan Singh. Ishant Sharma and RP Singh continue to veer between the brilliant and the abysmal, and with Yuvraj's left-arm spin also out of the equation, one of Dhoni's biggest tasks will be to cobble together an effective 50-over bowling plan.

Off-field distractions are no help. The run-up to the World Twenty20 in England was full of media reports of a rift within the team, a charge that infuriated Dhoni to such an extent that relations with the reporters on tour reached an all-time low. They have arrived in South Africa with the same siege mentality, but that hasn't stopped global headlines about the alleged dossier that encourages players to walk down the Keith Miller-George Best route of boudoir indulgence.

These should be the best of times for Indian cricket, with the team having a great mix of young talent and proven performers, but with the media in particular going from singing hosannas to showing signs of the Tall-Poppy Syndrome, it's also Dhoni's biggest test.

Ultimately, no one remembers the bilateral series wins, or what you do in various triangular series. Teams will always be judged by their performances on the big stage. Hansie Cronje won 99 of his 138 matches as South African captain, while capturing only one trophy of note. Now, in the country where Cronje was once so adored, Dhoni must avoid a similar fate. Without the trophies that matter, No.1 rankings aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Anit on September 26, 2009, 12:58 GMT

    Its a game day. RP Singh gone for 21 runs in two overs and taken out of attack. So much for this consistent poor performer. I know he is persisted due to Mahi's goodwill. This needs to change. I am waiting to see performance of Yusouf Pathan.

  • victor on September 26, 2009, 7:15 GMT

    As an impartial commentator, I'd have to say that Pakistan look like they have a psychological edge over India. Everyone would love to see Tendulkar step up to the crease and deliver a classic knock. But the bigger the stage, the greater the chances of India losing their smooth talking confidence. Especially with their two most attacking batsmen in hospital. Always a thriller between the two tribes who hate each other the most, but are the most alike. Afridi man of the match.

  • Balaji on September 26, 2009, 7:04 GMT

    i dont see INDIA wiinning this game coz of their lack of firepower in bowling attack .. pace ... Ishant ..has reduced in pace by a big margin from ~145 above at Aus( CB Series) ... to bowling at 135's reaching max of 140's now ... only harbhajan is a bit reliable attack now just a misery .... without zaheer .INDIA is heavily reliaing on thier batting line up ,bat 1st get above the par score and put pressure ,dhoni has no options with this bowling attack ...even if this bowling attack performs exceptionally well today .. next match it will be a complete flop they will surely get hammered , i don know how INDIA is among the favourite lists with such a sad bowling attack ,pakistan has much more better bowlers like gul asif aamir ... their spin bowling department is not as experienced as india's.but still fast bowling does the trick in SA ,Ind has a chance if sachin's brilliance is on display today .....

  • Avi on September 26, 2009, 1:06 GMT

    With the bowling, India should play two spinners Harbhajan and Mishra, along with Ashish Nehra and Ishant Sharma, and we can easily get 10 overs out of Yusuf, Raina and Sachin (who is actually under-bowled by Dhoni). If this attack does its job, we can restrict Pakistan to 220 or if they are chasing defend any target we have set them.

  • siddharth on September 26, 2009, 0:17 GMT

    decent article dileep...guys lets hope tomorrows game is humdinger..i think much will depend on the middle overs..dhoni should use raina and yusuf very cleverly as they can be productive bowlers in middle always sachin is d key..dravid should not get bogged down...guys lets make our saturday a fantastic one..bring it on!!

  • Anit on September 25, 2009, 21:13 GMT

    As long as selectors are persisting with poor performers like Karthik and Yusouf Pathan, and RP Singh, it is going to be tough to consistently win. Yusouf Pathan may be a good fit for 20-20 but his performance in the longer version is very poor. Karthik may not be a good fit in either format. Both are in the team as specialist batsmen and average less than 25 after playing about 30 ODIs. RP has been around for good 4 years. It does not take so long for a reasonably good calibre bowler to mature.

  • Morshed on September 25, 2009, 20:15 GMT

    India will miss Sehwag, Yuvraaj and Zaheer very badly in this tournament. If these three player were with this team, suddenly this Indian team would have been the best in this tournament. But now u can say India is not much better team than pakistan. Indian success is only depend on Sachin, Dhoni and Harbhajan. If this three players click, then India have very good chance. So best of luck Sachin... Go and do something special what u did in 2003. We know u r the best ever one day batsman.

  • Farhan on September 25, 2009, 18:33 GMT

    Sharma_paaji is right about over-analyzing the situation. Tomorrow's meet doesn't depend one bit on whether dhoni takes pressure or how dravid plays or whether sehwag or gambhir are playing. The result depends on whether the Pakistanis self destruct or not - dhoni's attitude, Yuvraj's finger, Tendulkars age etc are all non-issues. Such a waste of cyeberspace tsk tsk...

  • Ajith on September 25, 2009, 16:52 GMT

    Common Guys!!! Lets talk blabbering about the big names... Cricket is getting more intensified. India has plenty of young talent. We should know that mentally taking on the game is very important. Our youngsters are mentally tough and well groomed by Dave (from NCA). So any youngster like Kohli, Karthink, Nayar given a chance I am sure that they will try giving their best of the best for this big event. Even though unfortunately we miss Sehwag, Yuvraj on a given day not a very BIG problem. Common Team India, its just a matter of 1 game if you prove good then all the odds, media will be turned upside down as did the past. Cheer Up!!! Best of Luck..

  • dfg on September 25, 2009, 16:43 GMT

    clearly the indian bowling is very one in our fast-bowling department is able to consistently hit one is good in swinging the ball nor at yorkers ,short-pitched balls. so it will be no surprise if india exit early similar to being the so called favourites in june and being eliminated.

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