'It's all about partnerships' - Dhoni
There were two clear differences in the Indian team's approach from the Twenty20 internationals, and both come down to clear thinking. First Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the best batsman in ODIs for over a year, batted higher up the order. Second, it was Praveen Kumar, a specialist bowler, opening in the absence of Ishant Sharma, and in place of Irfan Pathan, who on current form is neither here nor there. Both should have occurred long ago, and both paid off today.
Dhoni will have to play, by choice, the role Brendon McCullum played for New Zealand in the Twenty20s by default, as a result of what he felt was mediocre form. The task involves swallowing the batsman's ego, and McCullum did that perfectly in the first two games. Nudging and edging he kept one end up, allowing the other big hitters to make merry. This Indian team has two obvious candidates for that role now - Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar, and to an extent Gautam Gambhir. It's not a question of form, but they have shown the aptitude, and the team needs at least two such batsmen to allow the likes of Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina have a free hand.
After Tendulkar had performed that role in the first 10 overs, Dhoni walked out to bat. It is quite possible that either Yuvraj or Raina would have come out had the first wicket been Sehwag's. Dhoni didn't find the going comfortable, especially against the canny spin of Daniel Vettori, but that wasn't the point. The important thing was he chose to look ungainly and stay in the middle, turning the strike over, rather than trying to hit out.
"You have to capitalise on a good or decent start," Dhoni said. "If I go in early I can look to stay till the end so that Suresh Raina, Yuvraj and Yusuf Pathan can play their natural game. It gives us an opportunity to score a par-plus score without really thinking of playing aggressive game, just the natural game."
Sehwag and Raina found the license, and both played sublime innings. Dhoni contributed 22 to a 52-run partnership with Sehwag, and 43 to a 110-run stand with Raina. "I feel it is all about partnerships and not who is scoring," Dhoni said. "If you are the skipper or a team-man it doesn't matter who is scoring in the partnership. If you have a 50-run partnership in 60 balls, you should be happy. Doesn't matter if Yuvraj has scored 40 and I have scored 10.
"Viru was the leader when it came to partnerships, he scored at ample pace, giving me time to play extra deliveries and get used to conditions. Raina was brilliant. He came at a time that was tricky for him - whether to look for the big shots or get himself in. He went by instinct and that's good. He could have got out and would have looked really ugly, but we want individuals to play their natural game."
It was Dhoni who let the other individuals play their natural game today. Once he was in, the top-spin whiplash out of the block hole - a shot unique to him - also came out, providing the acceleration towards the end. Dhoni may have scored 84, but around him 204 runs were added.
Dhoni didn't surprise with a cool-headed innings, but his aversion to playing Praveen in Twenty20s has been a bit of a surprise. It definitely has something to do with Irfan's batting, and Dhoni has admitted he wants more batting depth in the Twenty20s. But Praveen - an average of 28.73 and an economy-rate of 4.73 in ODIs - is the bird in hand, Irfan on current form is two in the bush.
It helped that India brought in two medium-pacers - Praveen and Munaf Patel - after Ishant's injury. It would have prompted Praveen to think he didn't come in just because of the injury, but that he was wanted in the XI. Against England, in the home ODIs, he wasn't picked. When he came back, for the ODIs in Sri Lanka, he took five wickets in three matches, and gave away runs at 4.15 an over in a high-scoring series which India won 4-1.
Praveen scores over Irfan with his ability to bowl seam and swing the ball; Irfan mainly relies on the latter. Both of Praveen's assets were on display tonight. In the first over he bowled - a wicket-maiden - he troubled McCullum with movement in to him as well as away. He surprised Jesse Ryder with sharp pace and movement, before getting him with one that went away with the angle. At that point, Praveen's figures read 3.4-1-8-2. The required run-rate had crossed eight.
What may also worry Dhoni about Praveen is he is not as effective with the old ball. Praveen's next 14 balls went for 20 runs. "We need to figure out the third-seamer department," Dhoni said. "The ball stops doing much, and assisting the seamers, and that's the time you need someone who is street-smart and someone who can utilise slower balls and bouncers to get around it."
Praveen has brought in a lot of canniness to his bowling since his international debut, but he has some way to go before he is fit for what Dhoni is looking for, especially with the old ball.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo