India v Sri Lanka, World T20, final, Mirpur April 5, 2014

Just another pressure test for Dhoni's icemen

Few sportsmen face the pressure of expectations that the Indian cricketer does. Where this team scores in big finals is the way it has trained itself to block out the stress, a necessary survival skill for these players

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A legend in the opposition camp talks about the need of professional help to aid his side in dealing with the emotions and fears of playing in a world-tournament final. Another opponent spends hours practising sweeps, reverse-sweeps and whatnot on a scuffed-up pitch before the semi-final. India play football. The World Cup champions, the Champions Trophy winners, with a chance to hold all three major limited-overs titles at the same time, they play football.

Make what you will of it. Some could say they are taking one of the biggest games of their lives lightly. Some could say they are being disrespectful to the opposition, or even to the game of cricket itself, by focusing their energies on a completely different game. Some could go further and say they are being casual about representing their country.

You see, even a simple game of football has the potential to invoke extreme reactions back home. Make that hundreds of millions of extreme reactions. That is how we Indians are. In several cases, our cricket team is probably as important to us as our nuclear stockpile. And the nuclear stockpile does not have to deal with the hundreds of millions of unrealistic expectations that bring about these extreme reactions.

Football then, to this team, is a way of staying sane, barefoot or otherwise. It's a way of retreating into a cocoon in which, for as long as the game lasts, there is no cricket, and as a result, no pressure of expectations. Where Virat Kohli can be Virat Kohli, and not someone who is expected to run the marathon and win it in every single chase. Where R Ashwin can be R Ashwin, and not someone who is expected to be a classical offspinner, a carrom-ball expert, a taker of wickets and a constrictor of runs rolled into one.

It is probably an Indian way of dealing with something that you can easily trip on. To getting as close as possible to assuming it does not exist at all. We all do that every day of our lives; we come as close as possible to assuming the politics, the prejudices and the pollution are not all around us, so that we can get through one more day. And these things all threaten to take us apart in the same, all-consuming way the pressure of expectations does for an India player.

This near-denial, for want of a better word, has also become a proportionate response for this team under MS Dhoni, meted out according to the importance of the game. The bigger the occasion, the bigger the cocoon they try to build around themselves. "Are we playing a final? Yes, we are playing a final. Are we going to approach it contemplating about it as a final? No, our aim will be not to. For if we do, some of us could crumble under those hundreds of millions of expectations. Some of us still might. We are all human after all, despite the demigod status. But the attempt will be to resist reality as much as we can." Or keep the feelings the average person will inevitably feel "at bay", in the words of the captain.

"Emotions are something I personally feel you have to keep at bay," Dhoni said. "As human beings we are all emotional but when you are playing at a professional level, it is very important that you have control over your emotions."

If a team is a reflection of its captain, India is Dhoni's reflection in the way they have succeeded on some colossal occasions by endeavoring to treat them as normally as they possibly could. However, the keeping of emotions at bay should not be mistaken for an absence of emotions. Take the clear-headed Kohli, for example. We all know about the fire that constantly burns inside him. We have seen so many manifestations of it, good and ugly.

For that flame to burn with enough intensity to propel him to great deeds, and still not scorch him, is a balancing act of staggering proportions. It is not developed overnight, almost no one is born with it, even the seemingly icy cool captain wasn't.

"I don't think I was calm from childhood," Dhoni said. "I'm someone who doesn't like losing much. When I was young I had trouble controlling the emotions associated with getting defeated. Over a period of time, I have learnt how to control this emotion. I'm a believer in the fact that your emotions are yours only and hence you should be the one who knows how to control it. Over time I found dealing with emotions easier. I feel it is important because in a game there are so many stages where you don't want to take a decision emotionally. Practically you decide what is the best option."

It is this tightrope walk, this ability to insulate yourself from reality and still deliver in a real world, that Sri Lanka are up against, once more in a world-tournament final.

Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Richard on April 6, 2014, 15:06 GMT

    There are a couple of very good players and one world class player ( Kohli) in this Indian side, but to call them icemen is a bit much. They definitely do not handle pressure as well as they could, otherwise they would win a lot more test matches, where the environment is at it's most pressurised.

  • vageesan on April 6, 2014, 9:16 GMT

    @kingOwl : Contradict to your comment : India won the ICC champions trophy in england. Apart from that when you talk about the tri series in australia, yeah sri lanka went into the final but the bottom line is they lost that series too. No wonder who would have won if india had went into the final. Also you should not forget the humiliating loss by srilanka when india chased 321 in 36 overs. What we are talking here about the temperament of this indian team in crunch / high pressure games in which they are the best in the world.

  • Dummy4 on April 6, 2014, 9:08 GMT

    @KingOwl the last time India and Sri lanka played in Australia, India chased over 300 runs in 37 overs to go ahead of Sri Lanka on points and Run rate..... Sri Lanka qualified because Australia allowed them to so that the Aussies dont have to face India in a Final...... So do not compare a favoured qualification to the hard earned ones......

  • Archana on April 6, 2014, 7:46 GMT

    Frankly the attitude improvement of the Indian cricket team is thanks to MSD and the way he has of dealing with things. Hats to him - an absolute gem of a leader.

  • Madhusudhanan on April 6, 2014, 7:40 GMT

    Winning of any crucial matches is by purely based on the performances of all divisions in cricketing history by all mates of India. So as Indian by heart truely we will pray the success of our winning Indian team with real hearts comrads !!!. Super cool captain will definitely achieve this combination and sure we will win this T20 Cup.

  • Milind on April 6, 2014, 7:22 GMT

    @KingOwl the ICC Trophy was held in England in June 2013. Guess who won?

  • WARRIOR on April 6, 2014, 7:20 GMT

    MS DHONI is a good LOI captain in subcontinent conditions with the current team he has. Real deal is 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. If he can win that then only we can praise this guy. His test captaincy is abysmal but then again he does not have test quality bowlers in the team. Anyways test cricket is not important to me so I don't mind the losses.

  • dave on April 6, 2014, 7:06 GMT

    I dont understand why MS Dhoni is hated in India...Tactically and result wise, he is the best leader india has had since 2007 especially in ODIS and t20s...The problem with indian team loosing test matches abroad is simple and i wonder why certain esteemed cricket intellectuals havent been able to recognize it. The fact is Indian pace bowling culture is weak..U need to produce quality fast bowlers and medium paced bowlers who are passionate about bowling,. wher is Umesh yadav? he looked very promising...look @ mitchell johnson,malinga, umar gul, steyn, roach, anderson,broad, cori anderson..can u name even 1 fast bowler from india who has been consistent? U need 2 be critical of indias team management and selectors ..Captain is not everything , he cannot go 2 evry citties or town 2 selct bowlers...bowlers especially consistent fast and medium pace bowlers are key to success in test matches abroad..Inspite of being an indian, I believe Srilanka deserve to win this t20 coz of its attitude

  • Muhammed on April 6, 2014, 6:58 GMT

    Perfect stage for a trademark MSD finish! Yes, Dhoni has got the best out of his players during this tournament. He has captained very well and was very active on the field than usual. On a big final day, the script is simple.... SL wins the toss and ask India to bat first. Pumped up captain Malinga gives them a good start and puts India under pressure. Kohli fails to score big and this forces India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni to promote himself to No:4.... we know what happens next and SL are used with that. MSD to take India to a huge score with his well calculated power innings... and his bows will ensure MSD's innings is not wasted!! Cricinfo: Please take a note of my prediction as this will happen for sure.

  • Yogesh on April 6, 2014, 1:47 GMT

    Agree with VJ0786. MSD is a key reason this team stays as calm and focused in big matches as it does. As a leader of people myself (albeit in a corporate field), I know how difficult it is sometimes to present a composed face in the face of stress and adversity. To do so when the weight of millions of people's expectations is upon you - well, that is superhuman almost. Good luck tomorrow, guys, and hope and pray you win against SL. God bless!

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