Dhoni insists captaincy isn't a cakewalk
After ceding the limelight to Sachin Tendulkar on the final day in Chennai, Mahendra Singh Dhoni fronted up to the cameras and microphones in Mohali, perhaps aware that no Indian captain has won three Tests on the trot [excluding tours of Bangladesh] since Sourav Ganguly triumphed at Kolkata, Chennai [Australia] and Bulawayo seven years ago. His record as captain thus far is perfect - four from four - and Mohali was the scene of the most emphatic victory, a 320-run drubbing of Australia two months ago.
"Nothing is easy, I can assure you of that," said Dhoni with a smile when asked if this whole captaincy business was a lark. "International cricket is tough. Yes, if you do have a good side, if the side is doing everything right, it looks a bit easy. I think it's just that the team is playing really well."
There was certainly cause for alarm in Chennai, with England dominating the first three days of the match. "In the first three days, I don't think we won too many sessions," Dhoni said. "But the last two days, we were on the mark, we won the sessions that mattered. We raised our standards, we took the responsibility as a team, and that's what really matters. Viru [Sehwag] started it in the second innings and of course Sachin and Yuvi [Yuvraj Singh] batted really well. But at the same time, the bowlers were also fine. When there were partnerships, they were willing to bowl and stick to the plans.
The cracks on the Mohali pitch didn't faze him unduly, and he said that he expected it behave much like the surface on which Australia had been beaten. "It's tough to say how different it is," he said. "I can only say how different it's looking right now. It's quite dry, though a fraction harder than the surface we'd played on. But there have been quite a few Ranji Trophy games on the same wicket, and looks can be deceptive. It could be on the slower side."
Dhoni was unstinting in his praise for the batsmen who pulled off the Chennai chase, and he stressed on how the big partnerships mattered. "I think a lot depended on the start," he said. "I think it was a perfect start given by Viru, because if you don't get such a start, you'd be playing to save the game, which is not easy. It looked easy when Yuvi and Sachin were batting. When they were through with the initial stage, it looked a bit easy. But it's really tough and gets tougher when a new batsman is in. When a partnership gets going, it looks like a flat wicket. But when a new batsman comes in, all of a sudden the balls seem to start to jump and everything seems to happen, especially on a fifth-day wicket."
In his mind, there were no doubts about Sehwag's standing in the modern game. "Whether it's the last innings he played, or the way he plays, he is one of the most destructive batsmen in Test cricket and one-day cricket," said Dhoni. The positive mindset within the team has also allowed the likes of Sehwag to play their natural game. "To keep it very simple, we back Sehwag to play his shots even if he gets out in a few innings. As a team, we backed him. We know the game he plays and we know how he's got so many runs in international cricket. So believe in the talent that every individual has got. That really makes us a real team."
Sehwag's brilliance in Chennai largely obscured another significant contribution from Gautam Gambhir, whose form since returning to the side has been nothing short of a revelation. "Both of them complement each other," said Dhoni. "They've played loads of domestic cricket together, they run well between the wickets. Both of them are aggressive, they play their strokes. They score at a brisk pace, over three an over. So if they stay together for 10 to15 overs, we know that they would get 50 to 60 runs. But the one thing that stands out is their running between the wickets."
There was some sympathy for the English bowlers who toiled without much reward on the final day in Chennai, on a pitch where India too had struggled for breakthroughs.
"They didn't bowl badly, it's just that at times things do not go your way," he said. "When there was a partnership between Paul Collingwood and Andrew Strauss, nothing was happening for us. Even when the ball was bouncing, or hitting the glove, it wasn't going to the fielders. It happens in cricket at times.
"Maybe they could have done something different. They could have got Monty to bowl in the rough; they could have done something different, especially when Sachin went for his chest pad, it was very obvious that he'd not played his shots from that region so at that time they could have gone for some of their options. With a great player like him, you can see what the indications are, which basically in this case was that he would not play shots from the rough, unless it was really pitched up, underneath his bat."
The euphoria surrounding the run chase temporarily stopped talk of the Rahul Dravid crisis, but predictably, the questions were back in full force on Thursday. "I've said that each time, I'm not really worried," Dhoni said. "I feel it's just a matter of time. Once he passes the 30-run mark, he'll get his confidence back. Nobody can question his talent and determination. We have confidence in him and I think he'll get runs at some point of time."
He didn't, however, rule out a change in the batting order, with VVS Laxman moving up to No.3 and Dravid dropping down to No.5. "We're thinking, but at the same time it's not confirmed because we have to think of a few other things as well," he said. "Shifting Rahul to No. 5 and asking VVS to bat at No. 3, it might seem okay - VVS is scoring runs and it would be easier for Rahul to bat at No. 5. But it might turn the other way round as well. If on a good ball, VVS gets out, there is already pressure on Rahul, and if he comes in with three wickets down early, there will be more pressure. It's really tough to battle that. If you're coming in at No. 3, you come in at one wicket down, and that gives you the freedom to play your natural game."
Dravid apart, India certainly did that in Chennai. And after storming home with 20.3 of the day's scheduled overs still to be bowled, Dhoni was certain that it would affect the sort of targets set for India in future. "We were criticised when we didn't declare in the series against Australia," he said. "Well, the first preference is to save a game. Being brave is very important but you can't be foolish. So from a point where you have the control of the game, you shouldn't give the opposition even a chance of winning the game.
"Once the opposition knows that it can't win a match, they just look to defend, and that's the time when you can really attack them more, push them to the back foot. There was that famous Test match when the Indian team was given the follow-on and it went on to win the game. And after that, we've seen a number of international sides not giving the follow-on. So it can start a trend, when people would like to be safe first."
With a series to square, Kevin Pietersen and England no longer have that luxury.