The Indian machine looks well-oiled
In the last 12 months India have won 20 of their 30 games and lost only eight. In the same time period, the No. 1 team in the world, South Africa, won 13 out of 19, losing five. And Australia have won 14 while losing 8 matches. India's win-loss ratio is almost equal to that of South Africa's while Australia lag behind considerably. Times are changing.
India know that they can bridge the gap between them and Australia, which is just five points in the ICC rankings. Now, with a comprehensive performance in the first ODI against Sri Lanka, the wheels are churning in motion towards that.
Leading them is Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who gives the air of a man who knows his job. Dhoni is an easy man to like as captain. He rolls out the right words to the press, never shirks from a tough question, is proactive during play and does the unexpected things regularly on the field and many a time off it as well.
Today, the press conference offered another example of his candour. The reporter's question was a very simple one - Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma performed well in the absence of Virender Sehwag. Is the current bench strength good? The answer was revealing of the man. Instead of a stereotypical 'yes' to that question, Dhoni went on to add, "But one more thing we can improve is the finishing part. If the batsman gets set, especially one of the top four, if he can continue it will be great for the men coming in later. The pitches are slow here and it's difficult for the new batsman to score."
Let's play the devil's advocate and recount the situation from the game.
Suresh Raina was run out and Yuvraj Singh threw away his wicket, holing out to long-on creating some artificial excitement. The required rate came down to a run-a-ball with two new batsmen in the middle and Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis back into the attack. It was the only time India looked in any sort of trouble in the opening game. Dhoni might be warning about such complacency.
Otherwise the series has started well with the various mini-battles for the spots in the playing XI off to a competitive start.
Raina was given a head start against Rohit Sharma, something Dhoni announced before the first game. Thilan Thushara's bouncers shook him up for a brief while and he hopped on couple of occasions, took his eyes off the ball once, but there was nothing dramatic - the wicket wasn't threatening - and he got out of jail, compiling a fine 54.
Today, in the nets, Raina was given a thorough working over by coach Gary Kirsten who threw down several short balls. Kirsten walked up time and again to offer suggestions and shouted words of encouragement whenever Raina connected well with the pull or swayed away perfectly.
|Dhoni has shown a penchant to use the part-timers liberally and intelligently. Yuvraj Singh and Sehwag have been utilised a lot by him in the past and he showed in the first game, where Raina and Rohit turned their arms over effectively, that he is always looking at more options|
The battle for places saw an improved performance from another player. Yusuf Pathan, shadowed by Ravindra Jadeja in the allrounder's slot, turned in his best performance with the ball in recent memory. It helped that the scenario didn't allow Sri Lanka's batsmen to go after him but he kept it tight and didn't offer much room. Today, he bowled at the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag and was constantly asking the batsmen how he was progressing.
The final fight was between Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar. Munaf didn't have a great game; nor did he have a poor game. He went for 15 runs in his first three overs and gave away a further 17 when he returned for a second spell of two overs. Today, Praveen and Munaf toiled hard at the nets. Praveen may have the edge, thanks to the dramatic swinging deliveries in his arsenal which looks much better than the good old line and length that Munaf operates with.
The presence of batting allrounders has also helped India significantly. Dhoni has shown a penchant to use the part-timers liberally and intelligently. Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh have been utilised a lot by him in the past and he showed in the first game, where Raina and Rohit turned their arms over effectively, that he is always looking at more options. At times, in the first game, the Indian team looked like the victorious Sri Lankan team of the old, when a slew of part-timers would choke up the run-flow in the middle on slow wickets.
The Indian machine looks well-oiled and it will take a brilliant performance from either Murali and Mendis, or a combined effort from the top three Sri Lankan batsmen to be upstaged. Mahela Jayawardene put it succinctly: "It will be a good challenge for us to beat a side that is doing so well."
If you are beaten by a special performance from the opposition, then there isn't often much you could have done about it. India are not there yet but have put Sri Lanka on notice that they have to really step up to claim this series.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo