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May 11, 2010
India have had another Caribbean nightmare. Three years ago they were the kings of Twenty20 but now have some serious thinking to do about the shortest format. For the second tournament in succession they have been dumped without a win in the Super Eights and defeat never goes down well back home. And this from a side in which every member played at the IPL. Ideal preparation? Obviously not.
This exit may not create the seismic activity that followed the early flight home in the 2007 World Cup, but it is bound to produce plenty of harsh assessment. The inquisitions had started even before this match, with India only having an outside chance of progressing. That faint hope disappeared once Sri Lanka reached 144 in their run-chase and a demoralised side then gave up the match off the last ball. Four sixes in the final eight deliveries carried Sri Lanka to an impressive success and their all-round performance was the complete opposite of what India have been able to produce.
MS Dhoni managed a few smiles in his press conference as he was grilled in expected fashion. Partly that was due to an interruption from the PA announcer about an illegally parked car, but also when he was asked about how this would go down in India. He knows what it will be like. He's been here before and it won't be pleasant.
"As captain you are always under pressure," he said. "I think it's the responsibility of the captain to explain why the team didn't do well because he's the face of the team. He gets the credit when he goes well and he also gets the criticism. It shouldn't reach into your private life but we are leading a country where cricket is a big sport and each time we go out we are expected to win."
But it was the downbeat nature of his assessment of what the team could have done about the situation which was most clear and surprising. "At the end of the day we are on the losing side, nothing much can be done about it because this is the best 15 [players] you can get in India when it comes to T20. At the end of the day if you are outplayed there is nothing much you can do about it."
In hindsight the signs weren't good to start with. They were the last side to arrive and didn't opt for a practice match before their opening game. Dhoni suggested it was the last thing his team needed after a 90-minute coach ride from the international airport in St Lucia to the north of the island. They have also chosen days off rather than practice during the event but Dhoni said "one more practice session wouldn't have made a difference".
They were lucky with the schedule in the group stage as their opening game was against Afghanistan who, for all the romanticism it possibility entailed, were never seriously going to challenge India. That gave them breathing space and the victory against South Africa, led by Suresh Raina's 101, was a slick display which boded well. In reality they peaked too soon.
They couldn't handle the pace and bounce of the Barbados pitch and Dhoni has admitted some of the batsmen aren't up to the challenge due to the nature of conditions they are brought up on. There aren't many bouncy tracks at the IPL. When they were back in St Lucia they were right at home on the front foot and Raina was back in the runs. Nothing was bouncing above knee height. Dhoni admitted that India's inability to cope with the bouncer was systemic.
"Most of us have the problem of playing short-pitched balls. So it is not just the youngsters who had problems. We can't neglect it any more. But we don't have bowlers who consistently at 145-50 kph and most of wickets in India don't have that kind of bounce," he said.
"But we should also remember we are good players of spin. So we shouldn't be ashamed that we can't play short-pitched bowling. We have to play even against short balls but we can't be ducking and leaving all the time in Twenty20," Dhoni said.
Win or lose, the role of the IPL was bound to be at the forefront of India's performance. Dhoni has said it's unfair to compare the two, but if anything this World Twenty20 has just gone to reinforce that the quality is actually spread pretty thinly in that tournament. It's a domestic event, albeit a big and brash one. Dhoni also made a subtle suggestion that players needed to take responsibility for themselves.
"I've had no setbacks because of the IPL but at the same time players need to be smart because IPL is not only about cricket," he said. "You have to respect your body and if you don't do that then IPL is draining. If you play late games and go to the parties and travel the next day it takes a toll. But if you take care of yourself 45 days of cricket shouldn't affect you because we play 200 or more in a year."
It's a question of priorities for this India team and maybe international Twenty20 is now down the list. Now that they are top of the tree in Test cricket the BCCI is trying to arrange Test series left, right and centre so they can retain the mantle. South Africa's tour earlier this year was adjusted to include two Tests and Australia are now being asked for the same when they visit in October. If the BCCI really do want to help the future of Test cricket then it's a great move, but it is clearly more than coincidence.
India next's assignment is a triangular series in Zimbabwe alongside the hosts and Sri Lanka with what, in effect, is a shadow side. Senior players, including Dhoni, are being rested, which suggests he is more tired than he has admitted.
However, for Dhoni there is a huge challenge on the horizon over the next nine months - preparing his team for a World Cup on home soil. Failure here will be hard to stomach for the billions of fans, but failure next year won't be tolerated.
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