Calm Dhoni commands strong force
The final delivery summed up the series so far. Munaf Patel bowled with four slips, a gully and a point, and Stuart Broad's waft outside off stump missed the outside of the bat on its way to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. It was obviously grandstanding from the team that had the game won, but as with almost every single Indian gimmick and gambit in this series, it worked. Munaf may not have got the edge, but India's fast bowlers had plenty of it on a chilly night when they proved that they're second to none at this moment in time.
Without taking anything away from Virender Sehwag's dazzling 57-ball 69, it is difficult to fathom just how the Man-of-the-Match adjudicator could have overlooked Zaheer Khan. Since coming back into the Indian team in South Africa two years ago, he has led the line with distinction, and Sunday's five-over cameo was as good as anything he's produced in that time. Figures of 2 for 20 from five overs would be outstanding in a normal one-day game. In a match of this nature, they were sensational.
In his last two overs, the first of which marked the start of England's two-over batting Powerplay, he gave away just nine runs, picking up the wickets of Owais Shah and Samit Patel. And as Sehwag said later at the press conference, his maturity shows in the way he handled the younger bowlers, in how he's constantly having a word in the ear of Munaf or Ishant Sharma.
Munaf's nagging outside-off stump line worked a treat yet again, and though he was expensive in comparison to the other two, it was Ishant that picked up the two biggest wickets. Kevin Pietersen was too late on an expansive drive, and Andrew Flintoff was suckered by the wonderful slower ball that had embarrassed Shane Watson and Cameron White at this very venue in October. That second wicket, so soon after Shah's exit, killed the contest.
Afterwards, contemplating the series loss, Pietersen admitted he still didn't know what his best XI was for the conditions. It reflected poorly on the team's leadership group, and went some distance towards explaining just why India have so comprehensively outclassed a side that hammered South Africa not so long ago. Chasing 198 from 22 overs was always going to be a huge challenge, but England did themselves no favours at all during the first six Powerplay overs.
Zaheer and Munaf bowled with pace, aggression and intelligence, but a 21-run return was dismal under any circumstances. The two-over batting Powerplay was no better. When England called for it, Shah and Flintoff had resurrected hopes with a stunning partnership of 79 from 43 balls. By the time the 12 balls were up, both men were back in the pavilion, and the scoreboard had moved only 14 runs.
|Nothing appears to fluster Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and that serene air is contagious. He doesn't indulge in any histrionics, but his players undoubtedly know who's in charge. There may be the odd selection irritant, but for the moment, he walks on water|
Right through the series, England have been naïve with the Powerplays, and that frailty has been compounded by the inability to settle on a batting line-up. Matt Prior, who opened in the first two games, came in at No. 9 on Sunday. Ravi Bopara, who came in at No. 8 in an earlier game, has opened in the last two. Flexibility is often a quality associated with successful sides, but there can be too much of a good thing.
India have also tweaked here and there, but the spine of the team has not been tampered with. Sehwag continues to blaze away like a value-for-money Diwali firecracker, while Zaheer and Munaf have allowed his counterparts almost no liberties. Yuvraj has come in and teed off with the insouciance of a man in prime form, and Harbhajan has invariably come up with a vital wicket or two. The confidence within the ranks was epitomised by Yusuf Pathan, who walked in to face the last ball of the innings and promptly mowed it over long-on for six.
Most of all though, this is a team in the captain's image. The turning point was perhaps the second final of the CB Series in March, when it was Australia who lost their nerve in a tense finish. Nothing appears to fluster Dhoni, and that serene air is contagious. He doesn't indulge in any histrionics, but his players undoubtedly know who's in charge. There may be the odd selection irritant, but for the moment, he walks on water. Pietersen, who enjoyed that feeling against South Africa, must fervently hope that the sinking sensation doesn't get any worse with five more weeks of the tour to go.