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September 23, 2007
"Play without pressure, play to enjoy the game, express yourself, and don't worry about the results." That has been the mantra for Mahendra Singh Dhoni's Indian team over the last ten days, and the results of that philosophy have been nothing short of spectacular. The challenge for the team, and more so the captain, is to ensure that the same principles are adhered to for one last time in the ICC World Twenty20, in a match where it will be easy to forget plans and strategies, and worry about the results.
It's been a dream run for India, doubly unexpected because, coming into the tournament, the expectations were so low. Their Twenty20 experience had consisted of exactly one game, they had been beaten in the ODI series by England, and their three big batting superstars had opted out and been replaced by relatively unknown names.
On the eve of the final, though, all that ceases to be relevant. Instead, all those negatives have been replaced by a host of positives, so upbeat and vibrant has their performance been. What was seen as lack of experience - a drawback - has instead been a huge advantage: the younger players have raised the fielding to unbelievable levels, and the team has refused to be fazed by the win-or-perish situations that they have been confronted with more than once. The lack of superstars has been a cause for celebration too; Dhoni proudly announced it as one of the pluses for India.
Along the way the team has also learned very quickly, applied the lessons in the subsequent games, and improved in almost every aspect as the tournament has gone along. The improvement has been especially noticeable in the last three games: against England the batting was sensational but the bowling leaked too many; against South Africa they tightened up in the field but still allowed 11 extra deliveries; against Australia, though, while the batting remained high class, the number of wides came down from 11 to three.
Similarly there has been a noticeable strategy to their batting too: keep wickets in hand through the early overs, even if the scoring-rate isn't outstanding, so that even outrageous risks are possible in the latter part of the innings.
"The first five overs are important but not as much as the last eight overs," Dhoni explained on the eve of the match. "Against New Zealand [Virender] Sehwag and [Gautam] Gambhir gave us a terrific start but we couldn't capitalise, and played poorly in the last few overs. With wickets in hand even 10-12 runs per over is possible in the last overs." The game against Australia was the perfect example, as only 48 came from the first nine overs, while the last 11 yielded 140.
With the team in such spectacular form, there have obviously been some exceptional individual performers, none of whom have dazzled more than Yuvraj Singh. "I haven't seen anyone bat like he has over the last couple of matches," Dhoni said, while Shoaib Malik, Pakistan's captain, singled him out as the one Indian player to watch out for.
Yuvraj's scores have been spectacular, but even more than the runs scored what has been stunning is the manner in which he has struck those sixes and fours - virtually all of them have been clean hits, thumped into spots which have been clinically picked, with strokes that seemed almost risk-free. Another match of similarly breathtaking strokes, and India will have taken a giant step towards holding the winner's trophy.
Yuvraj has by no means been the lone hero, though. Sehwag - who will have to pass a fitness test tomorrow morning on a groin injury - and Gambhir have been busy and innovative at the start, Robin Uthappa has done his bit, while Rohit Sharma made a quite stunning debut against South Africa.
The bowling has had several stars too: RP Singh has been the most prominent with some outstanding new-ball spells and nine wickets in the tournament, but the others have played equally vital parts. Harbhajan Singh has been terrific at the death, firing them into the blockhole seemingly at will, Irfan Pathan has regained his control and consistency, while Sreesanth bowled one of the best spells of the tournament against Australia (though his excessive appealing earned him a censure from both the match referee and his captain later).
The two areas of concern for India are the venue and the run-chase: they've only played once at Johannesburg in the tournament, a 2pm start - like the final - against New Zealand, which they lost by ten runs; and while they've become proficient at setting a target, they've hardly experienced chasing one, batting second only once, in the match mentioned above. The 2pm start suggests the team winning the toss might want to bat first, and if Pakistan take that route, India will be in less familiar territory.
Overall, though, it's all falling into place nicely for India - after an iffy start, they seem to be peaking at just the right moment - but the pace and intensity of the Twenty20 game is such that they'll have to be on the ball right from the start, and for the entire duration of the match. Against a Pakistan team in equally dominant form, nothing less will do.
Route to the final
Group Stage: Scotland - Abandoned
Group Stage: Pakistan - Won bowl-out 3-0
Super Eights: New Zealand - Lost by 10 runs
Super Eights: England - Won by 18 runs
Super Eights: South Africa - Won by 37 runs
Semi-final: Australia - Won by 15 runs
Also, most brothers in a Test XI, and the fastest to 20 ODI centuries