Dhoni plays down India-Pakistan hype
The media attention over the past few days has been on the license-to-romp dossier that was allegedly given to the players in the build-up to the tournament, but MS Dhoni had nothing more than an enigmatic smile and a "No comment" when asked about it. There's a match against Pakistan to be played in Centurion on Saturday and the Kamasutra can wait. At the same time, Dhoni wanted nothing to do with the hype that surrounds these games, eager not to put undue pressure on a side that will be missing three stalwarts from the first-choice XI.
Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag weren't part of the squad in any case, but Yuvraj Singh's finger injury has serious ramifications on both the batting and bowling fronts. "He has been an asset for the past few years now," said Dhoni. "He's been a middle-order pillar for us, especially in the middle overs. It's difficult to replace an in-form Yuvraj, but when injuries happen you can't really do much. We always relied on part-timers with our bowling, and with Viru and Rohit [Sharma] also not in the 15, we've lost three. It will be tough for us to fill that space, but hopefully someone will turn up and say: 'It's my day. I'll try to bail you out.'"
Virat Kohli, Abhishek Nayar and Dinesh Karthik are all in the frame to replace Yuvraj, and the batting order is also likely to be rejigged with Gautam Gambhir pronounced fit to play. "It's hard to say right now what each player's role or responsibility will be," said Dhoni. "It depends on how well you start, and how well you then capitalise in the middle overs. More often than not, Yuvraj would be at the wicket during the second Powerplay. It's important for whichever batsman is at the crease then to bat aggressively. We do still have a lot of stroke players. If we get a good start, the free-stroking batsmen - like Yusuf Pathan, Suresh Raina and I - will have the responsibility of cashing in."
When someone asked whether Kohli's selection ahead of Rohit Sharma [who had done well in the IPL in South Africa] had surprised him, Dhoni responded belligerently. "I'm happy [with the choice]," he said. "He was the replacement batsman in Sri Lanka. Too much emphasis is given to the IPL. This is a different format altogether. It's a big mistake when people consider IPL performance for getting selection in the international squad. The demand of each format is very different. Virat has been performing for quite some time now. In the Emerging Players' Trophy that they played in Australia, he did very well.
"It's an ideal opportunity for him. It's difficult for youngsters that are part of the Indian side to get a chance in the playing XI. If they're part of a five game or seven-game series, they usually end up playing one or two. It's harsh to expect them to do something extraordinary in those games. This is the big stage and if he performs, he gets a prolonged stay with the team."
As for Pakistan, he insisted that it would be just another game. "The rivalry is there and will be regardless of whether it's Pakistan or any other side," he said. "When you turn up on the field, you want to win games. You don't want to put pressure on yourself by thinking you're playing Pakistan. What we want to do is go out there, do our best, enjoy the moment. At the end of the day, it's the same cricket that you play. There might be more intensity on the field, but that doesn't change the fact that you're playing just another team at the highest level.
"They're a tough side, one team capable of beating anyone else at international level. It's just another game for us. It will be tough, but that's what you expect in a tournament like this. If you put pressure on yourself, your chances of performing on the field go down considerably."
When he led the team for the first time at the World Twenty20 in South Africa two years ago, it was a makeshift outfit given little chance of success. Now, ranked No.1 in the world in the 50-over format, how much has changed? "The expectation level goes up, that's for sure," Dhoni said. "It's about doing well, preparing well. You can't control the toss, so I won't think too much about that. It's better to think of what you can control, like areas to bowl and specific plans for batsmen. But it's not just about plans, it's about executing them on the field. If you execute your plans well, more often than not you emerge as winners."
Though Amit Mishra bowled beautifully in the warm-up game that India lost to New Zealand, he's unlikely to feature in India's plans for Pakistan. "Playing with five bowlers is a luxury for us," said Dhoni. "We lack a seam-up bowler who can bat a bit. In these conditions, you can't play with only six batsmen. Ideally, I'd like [Amit] Mishra to play."
With the pitch at the Wanderers seemingly loaded in favour of the quick bowlers, Dhoni admitted that he was happy to be playing Pakistan and Australia on the spin-friendly surface at Centurion. "Overall, this pitch seems to be more suited for one-day cricket," he said. India's biggest challenge though would be to fill the part-time bowling slots, with Suresh Raina and Sachin Tendulkar likely to be in the fray on a pitch where the likes of Ajantha Mendis and Roelof van der Merwe have thrived.
Dhoni said that there would be no plan to target specific Pakistan players. "It's important not to concentrate on one, two or three players," he said. "It's a team sport, and you can't think of one individual. What if he gets a great ball and gets out and you don't have a plan for anyone else? It's important to focus on the whole team."
Both captains have tried to limit the hype ahead of the most keenly awaited match of the competition, but those that throng to the sold-out stadium are unlikely to treat it as just another game. When these two teams cross paths, special things tend to happen. If we have a game even half as good as the one at the same venue six years ago, the long wait would have been well worth it.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo