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September 29, 2009
Many Indians will find themselves between a rock and a hard place on Wednesday afternoon. For MS Dhoni's Indian team to have any chance of making the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy, Pakistan must beat Australia in Centurion. Those that usually celebrate a Pakistan defeat will instead be keeping fingers crossed that Younis Khan and his unbeaten side can nudge Australia towards the exit.
"I think Indian fans want us to qualify, so I am sure they will definitely support the Pakistan team," said Dhoni. "You can expect them to cheer Pakistan tomorrow, but it is entirely up to them."
Many of the questions that Dhoni faced on the eve of the game related to Pakistan and the possibility that they might take it easy against Australia, with qualification already clinched. Dhoni, though, would not be drawn on the prospect of Pakistan fielding a weakened side.
"Pakistan will not play their XI thinking if they win, India will qualify," he said. "Whatever they need to experiment they will do because they have qualified, they will look at the future. They might try out their reserves. It depends on them, what they want to get out of the game. I don't think they will consider that if they win and if we win comfortably against the West Indies, India will qualify. I don't think that will be an issue."
He also scoffed at the suggestion that he could advise Younis on how to tackle Australia. "Younis is a good captain and he has got a different side," he said. "It's not about suggestions, it's about what you can achieve with your team. Their strength is different, the spinners' contribution will be important because this will be the third match on the same track. So definitely spinners will get some help and the middle overs will be important. It will also depend on the kind of start."
Even India's team composition for the West Indies game will be dictated by what happens in the morning session in Centurion. "I believe they [Pakistan and Australia] are playing a day game and we are playing a day-nighter. By the time we start our game, we will know where we stand, what we actually need to do. Accordingly, we will decide the playing XI. Let's see how it goes, hopefully Pakistan wins."
That India are in this situation at all is largely due to a poor bowling display against Pakistan. Harbhajan Singh and Ishant Sharma, two of the bowlers the captain would have depended on most, veered between the lacklustre and the dismal in the two matches played, and Dhoni admitted that there was an awful lot of room for improvement. "I think overall we have not bowled that well. That's one thing we need to admit. But at the same time in the Pakistan game, whatever happened in the first innings, we were chasing a big score but we could have achieved that target. Unfortunately we were not able to, for some reason or the other, but bowling has been one of the factors.
"We have played just one game, so we can't say if the batting is down and out. We have bowled twice and what we have seen is that we are not bowling that well. But in the last game, I was happy with the performance when it comes to five bowlers taken together. Of course, one or two will have their off-day but overall it was much better compared to the first game. We didn't really pitch too short or too up. If you saw the wicket, there was something for the fast bowlers. Even in the first game, the ball was stopping a bit and there was a bit of swing movement. I thought we bowled really well in the last game against Australia."
The likes of Ishant and RP Singh were also well down on pace, but according to Dhoni, that wasn't as much of a concern as their erratic line and length. "It's not about bowling 140 or 145-plus," he said. "At the end of the day, you have to bowl the right line and length to the batsman. If you see the South African bowlers, they were among the quickest in the tournament but they were also fetched for runs. That means it is not about the pace, it is about where you are bowling and what field you have got. So I don't think pace is the only criteria, it is line and length, the swing and the movement that you can get."
Dhoni has a reputation for on-field calm, but that composure has been severely tested by two very ordinary displays in the field. "Of course it's quite frustrating but at the end of the day you have to realise that everybody who turns up on the field is trying his best to make the team win," he said. "At times, when you are out of form or you are a bit low, you have games or individuals who are not up to the mark, who are a bit low in confidence. You keep motivating them, you just want them to bounce back.
"I felt the last few overs that he bowled, that was more like the Ishant we know. Close to the stumps, bringing the ball in, not giving too much of width to the batsman. It's about when you can really bounce back and it can happen really quickly in cricket. A few shots and a batsman can be in form, a few missed deliveries and all of a sudden, the batsman or bowler can go out of form."
With the schedule being as relentless as it is, Dhoni said that there was a need for squad rotation, though the concept was unlikely to be easily implemented because of the weight of expectation back home. "When it comes to the Indian cricket team, we are expected to win each and every game," he said. "The moment you rotate a few players and you lose a game, it becomes a big issue. It's one thing that the whole of India needs to know and admit to. If you are playing so many games, then players will be rotated and maybe if the bench styrength is not so strong, we will lose a few games. It is has to be accepted.
"What it does is, you don't lose big players in big tournaments, and then it grooms the second line of bowlers. Till you don't give them opportunities to bowl at the international level, you don't expect all of them to turn up on the field and be at their best. It's a kind of process where you save the big players and at the same time groom the youngsters or the upcoming players, so that in case there is an injury in the future, we have players replacing the experienced guys with an experience of at least 25-30 international games. That really helps."
Having performed so well in most conditions over the past two seasons, Dhoni was adamant that his players would need no extra motivation ahead of the game, regardless of what happened in the morning in Centurion. "If there was a winning formula in sport, every team would have applied that and at the end of the day you wouldn't have got a winner," he said. "I don't think there is anything called a winning formula. Of course, you try to motivate your players to give their best because they are representing the country and it is a big tournament.
"We have played well for the last 18-20 months, so we all know we have the potential of doing well. We have done well everywhere in the world, so even if the confidence is a bit down they can really bounce back and give a tough fight to each and every side. At the same time, as is the case right now, it depends on the other game. We will just try to keep the players motivated. Whatever happens, it is beyond our control. We will ask them to think about the things that they can do or achieve in this game."
After two underwhelming displays, India, who arrived here with a serious chance of snatching the No.1 ranking, face yet another failure on the world stage. What Dhoni wants against the West Indies is evidence of the qualities that have allowed his teams to contend for that top spot.
"I feel losing or winning a game is part and parcel of any sport. But at the end of the day, you are quite okay if you have prepared well and done your best, even if you have not won a game.
"Everyone doesn't get to chance to play for India and lead the side. That itself is more than enough motivation. I'm not too much into stats but this is one of those games where you have to achieve everything. First of all, you want Pakistan to win, Australia to lose. Then, you want to win against West Indies, and you have to better your run rate."
Time to perform, and also to bring back the Jeet Lo Dil slogans of 2004. For a few hours at least, Younis and his boys could be heroes across the border.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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