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