Dhoni carries forward Ganguly's flame
Exactly eight years to the day since he first captained India in a Test, against Bangladesh in Dhaka, Sourav Ganguly marshalled the resources one last time. The ninth Australian wicket had fallen and the fielders were hovering around Cameron White and Mitchell Johnson with Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra having scripted a dramatic post-lunch collapse. It was a remarkable gesture from Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and it said much about how quickly he has grown into the job. A less secure man would have wanted to hog the limelight, but by ceding space to one of Indian cricket's all-time greats for a couple of overs, Dhoni showed just how aware he was of the bigger picture.
It came through in the tactics he employed as well. There had been scathing comments made about the 8-1 fields and wide bowling on the third morning, but there was tacit acknowledgement from Ricky Ponting that he would have loved it if his bowlers could have exercised similar control. Dhoni may have re-ignited debates about the spirit of cricket and a win-at-all-costs mentality, but as far as the team was concerned, eight wickets for 166 runs in a full day on a batsman-friendly pitch was nothing to sneeze at.
"He has that extra bit of luck you need," said Ganguly later, and he wasn't being uncharitable. There were moments in the match when Dhoni's leadership appeared bereft of direction, but then something would happen that made you forget what had preceded it. So it was on Monday afternoon with Matthew Hayden flailing away at the bowling with the air of a man who refused to countenance defeat. Runs were being leaked at an alarming rate and there were no close catchers for either Hayden or Michael Hussey as Dhoni concentrated on cutting off the fours.
Then, he threw the ball to Mishra. The game changed. His fourth ball from round the wicket was a perfectly pitched topspinner that reared up like many a Kumble special had over the previous two decades. All Hussey could do was lob to slip, and the mini-crisis was over. Hayden then tried to improvise once too often against Harbhajan and after that, the outcome of the match was in no doubt.
The early belligerence from Australia, and Hayden in particular, had pushed Dhoni on to the defensive quickly. Ishant Sharma, the standout bowler of the series, bowled to an 8-1 field against Simon Katich, and had seven on the off side for Hayden. But with plenty of runs being surrendered behind the wicket, Zaheer's opening spell of six overs cost 44 runs.
Again, Dhoni came up with the right change. Stroke of genius or plain luck, Harbhajan's arrival at the bowling crease changed things. Dhoni put down a chance off the second ball he bowled, but there was an element of recklessness in Hayden's approach that made India believe that playing the patience game would bring about a breakthrough.
India managed just 21.3 overs in that first session, and the shadow cast by dismal over-rates that caused Ponting to take his eye off the ball on the fourth evening appeared to affect Dhoni too. With Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan bowling offspin in tandem, Hayden was only too happy to tee off, especially with the variety of sweeps that caused such devastation back in 2001.
Dhoni though never loses his cool. The field went out, the game seemed to drift and then Mishra came on. It was almost as though Australia had been lulled into a false sense of security and then struck with an upper-cut. Within minutes, the fielders were swarming around the bat and the men-on-the-rope tactics quickly forgotten. Mishra was far too much for the tail to handle, and there was just enough uneven bounce to make Harbhajan dastardly difficult to play.
|A less secure man would have wanted to hog the limelight, but by ceding space to one of Indian cricket's all-time greats for a couple of overs, Dhoni showed just how aware he was of the bigger picture|
"There will be greater tests for MS, especially when he takes the team abroad," said Ganguly afterwards. It was a quiet reminder to everyone of just how hapless India once were when they left home comforts behind. But though Dhoni may not quite have been Safe Hands behind the stumps in this game, there's enough intuition and spark in his leadership to suggest that Indian cricket's future could be very bright indeed.
At the start of the millennium, Ganguly started the journey to "raise Indian cricket's profile overseas". For 10 minutes this afternoon just before a famous triumph was clinched, the past and future were intertwined. In so many ways, Dhoni is the best man to carry forward the Ganguly flame. These could well be the best of times.