Nip, tuck, and on a roll
Greg Chappell has a vision. A vision that, blurred at first by a speck of dirt, has now come into focus. The 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean is more than a benchmark for Team India and its new coach, and the Australian has laid down the brickwork from the word go. You need to have good players to win, and Chappell has set about building a team that he believes will challenge the best at the World Cup. In a pool of talent, both newcomer and veteran have been given responsibilities and an identity.
The series victory over Sri Lanka has set the wheels in motion, and what happens in the remainder of this year and in 2006 will set up India for glory in the West Indies. Individual records, series victories and a new athleticism are nice, and an epic 183 here and there can be a wonderful tease, but what matters is consistency and longevity. India will need to carry on the positive mind frame shown in the past couple of weeks if they are to perfect Chappell's vision of excellence.
For now, the signs are good. The bowlers are getting it together, Rahul Dravid runs to 50s before you can say Michael Bevan, his captaincy is inspiring, and the understudies can chip in with centuries when the lead actor is given a day off. Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag will always be looked at to Energizer-bunny the start of an innings, but the signs from the young blood - Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina - are positive.
Chappell has given the example of Australia in the 1980s, when they struggled because they did not breed youngsters. In his new avatar as coach of India, the Australian is not willing to make a similar mistake, for he knows that superstars like Dravid and Tendulkar will not be around for long post-2007. Those who watched the fifth one-dayer between India and Sri Lanka were given a glimpse of the India of tomorrow; ignore the result, and study the players bringing enthusiasm and spontaneity to the field.
At mid-off was Virender Sehwag, waving from short mid-off to Murali Kartik at fine leg to move squarer; behind the stumps was MS Dhoni; Yuvraj Singh was at point, Suresh Raina at short extra cover; Venugopal Rao hovered at square leg, Jai Prakash Yadav at mid-on; Gautam Gambhir looked at ease at midwicket, as did Sreesanth at third man; and as RP Singh measured his mark, the `veteran' Ajit Agarkar patrolled long-off. There was no Tendulkar, Dravid, or Sourav Ganguly, no Anil Kumble, no VVS Laxman. This was the team for the future.
Credit for this must go not only to Chappell, but to the Ganguly-John Wright partnership that grew roots in 2000-01 when the Board of Control for Cricket took a step forward and hired a foreign coach. Ganguly was a leader who took the challenge back to the opposition. He took calculated risks and was innovative and confident in his decision to do so. He backed his young players and enthused spirit into the side.
The mantle now falls on Dravid, one of the true class acts in cricket. An autopsy of the past season highlights that the successful Ganguly-Wright partnership ran out of steam. This has been the season of silly talk, but debates over Ganguly's batting form may be serious enough to see this as the last year of his international career. In the hours of need, Dravid has shown that he can lead and contribute as batsman as well. Like Wright and Ganguly, Chappell and Dravid understand team chemistry. If you want team-mates to be confident and disciplined, then you must first possess such traits. Dravid has these qualities in abundance.
The Australians won the last two World Cups by playing their cricket with intensity, precision and fierce competitiveness. India will do good to replicate that attitude. Chappell must guard his players against complacency, for the race for the big pennant has only just gotten underway. Only when these youngsters are playing in Jamaica and the aisles are jammed and the crowd on its feet will they seriously be tested, for there is no bigger stage than the World Cup.
Jamie Alter is editorial assistant of Cricinfo.