October 11, 2007

Brought to earth with a bang

If India are to seriously build they have to put the win in the World Twenty20, and the attendant clamour over youth, in perspective



India fell flat on their faces on a pitch that should have suited their bowlers, rather than the opposition's © AFP

Someone once said that if hangovers preceded the act of drinking, far less people would drink to excess. Similarly, had India known the pain likely to follow in one-day cricket against a team like Australia, they might not have been so euphoric over their success in the ICC World Twenty20. After five one-dayers in varied conditions and different climates, on myriad surfaces, the Indian team has been brought rudely back to terra firma, most clinically and emphatically in the fifth one-dayer in Vadodara.

While you can hardly expect any team to steamroll the Australians, a team with a batting line-up like India's should not fall so flat on their faces, especially on a surface that turned square and should have suited their bowlers more than the opposition's. Even given that the Indians were unlucky to lose Sourav Ganguly to a run out early on, and Yuvraj Singh to an inside edge that was well caught, and Dhoni to a flick down the leg side, there was no justifying the first nine wickets managing only 107 between them before being saved from absolute embarrassment by a 41-run last-wicket stand.

The easy thing to do would be to pan the Indian team, but that would be futile. Ganguly fell early, and Rahul Dravid - who now has 44 runs from five knocks in this series - was out first ball to a peach from Brett Lee. Had it not been for Sachin Tendulkar batting ominously well in his 400th outing, Australia's rout would have been even more complete. This only underscores how much this team still depends on at least two of these three to fire if they are to succeed, especially in big matches, against tough opposition.

Sure, India went all the way in the World Twenty20 without its illustrious trio, but the celebrations that followed, with phrases like "fearlessness of youth" and "great spirit in the dressing room" being dished out with greater regularity than the cash awards that politicians within and outside the Indian board offered, revealed the possibility that India might have lost touch with reality. The likes of Robin Uthappa, Gautam Gambhir and Rohit Sharma put in sterling performances but you need more than cameos in 50-over cricket.

If India are to seriously build, and play with purpose over the next few months, they have to put the win in the World Twenty20, and the attendant clamour over youth, in perspective

That's where the class of someone like a Tendulkar comes to play. Even in Chandigarh, when he was struggling to hit the ball as well he could, he ensured he put the highest possible price on his wicket, and 79 runs materialised from somewhere. More importantly, in starting the way he did, with Ganguly, the innings had backbone, a solid structure around which other freer spirits with lighter hearts could express themselves. On Thursday, once that safety net was gone, with Ganguly and Dravid both out for ducks, it was left to Tendulkar to plough a lone furrow, and it was never going to be enough.

The one person whose role is most critical in Indian cricket's ever-changing scenario is Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Batting where he does, sandwiched between the bankable seniors and the booming juniors, he has to be the glue that binds the innings, in the literal sense. He should be able to build an innings, beginning solidly and ending explosively. But, equally important, as captain of the team and the strongest link between the side that played such inspired cricket to win the World Twenty20 and the one that has hit an abrupt low in the ODIs against Australia, he has to ensure that good sense prevails.

Fortunately for Dhoni the selectors - some of whom are not averse to making public statements that put their own players under pressure - have resisted the temptation to ring in sweeping changes. But that's just for now. Pakistan will be no pushovers, and then India travel to Australia for the toughest of all assignments. And, while Australia brush off their Twenty20 loss, almost pretending it never happened, you can be sure they'll be reviving memories of this series when India land on their shores in December.

If India are to seriously build, and play with purpose over the next few months, they have to put the win in the World Twenty20, and the attendant clamour over youth, in perspective. Otherwise, more such rude shocks are in the pipeline.

Anand Vasu is an associate editor on Cricinfo

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