The plan is simple, the results impressive
In early 2008, RP Singh spoke of Mahendra Singh Dhoni's captaincy. "Sometimes in ODIs, since Dhoni is behind the wicket, you don't get to communicate that often. The nature of the format means you don't change your plans too much. There are generally just two spells to be bowled," he had said. "So under Dhoni, you execute what you have already decided off the field and when you change, he would come running to you and discuss."
Nearly a year later, Dhoni has been running to Ishant Sharma during match situations almost pleading with his bowler to bowl to a plan and to set fields, and to experiment only within those parameters. This is the mantra Dhoni has been harping on since he became captain.
Strait-jacketing a bowler within a pre-determined plan might seem like killing his creativity but Dhoni sees it just as sticking to a method and being disciplined. According to him, the plan is drawn up before a game in conjunction with the bowler and thus allows for the creativity to flourish as a part of the system; he is simply against making an impromptu decision on the fly. "It's better to have a plan - may be a bad plan - in mind than be confused," Dhoni said. "When you are the top of the bowling mark, you need to have one clear thought of where to bowl.
"If you are going to bowl a slower one, then you need a deep midwicket, not a third man," Dhoni said after the second ODI. He wanted better clarity of thought from Ishant, who took the most wickets but was expensive in the Powerplay in that game.
In the absence of Harbhajan Singh, Dhoni has relied on his fast bowlers to take wickets. And in the era of the batting Powerplays, especially on flat tracks and without your specialist spinner, the role of a fast bowler becomes critical.
Ishant knows what he has to do and where he is going wrong. "I get to bowl three or four overs at the start and then I have to come again and bowl in the Powerplay," he said today. "You just have to stick to your fields. I don't have to do too many experiments."
Ishant has seven wickets at an average 26.14, second to the left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, but it has come at an economy rate of 6.10. That is the highest for an Indian bowler to have bowled over seven overs in the series.
Ishant, who likes to hit the deck and derive pace off the track, has struggled a bit on the sluggish pitches. "Bowling has been difficult as the ball does not come on. It's not a big thing," he said. "The Indian wickets are similar and I am learning to bowl in all conditions. Zaheer [Khan] advises us in the nets and even during matches. When I am struggling or not bowling well in the game, he comes and tells me what to do."
When you are winning everything, the team spirit does tend to be exaggerated. But there are some pleasant signs that have been a constant feature in the series. Zaheer has constantly talked with Ishant in the nets and during the games. Venkatesh Prasad, India's bowling coach, has been intensively working with all the bowlers in the practice sessions. During practice Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag have been suggesting to the bowlers on where they are going wrong and what lines to bowl.
In the middle, the captain has led by example. Dhoni got out in the 90s in the last game, going for the big shot and he explained it thus: "There was a ball change in the 34th over and we had to take the second Powerplay as well. So I thought one of the batsmen had to quickly get his hundred and capitalise in the Powerplay." Even cynics will have to admit that that there is at least clarity of thought and a sense of purpose in the ranks. Every one appears to know what their role in the team is. Not for nothing are India ranked No. 2 in the official ICC rankings.
The doubters will say that the hard job is sustain over a period of time - year after year, month after month, day after day, spell after spell, ball after ball. India is looking at it in the other way - Do it ball after ball and the rest will follow. An interesting 2009 lies ahead of us.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo