At the end of a series few expected India to win, their captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni readily paid tribute to his young bunch of hopefuls, who came to Sri Lanka under criticism for their defeat in the Asia Cup final. Stressing a collective effort rather than the need to rely on experienced or individual players, Dhoni credited a group that, while not always in form, stuck together to give India their first bilateral series win on Sri Lankan soil in 23 years of trying.
"Cricket's not a game in which you can rely on form in the sense that you can get a good start but the bowler running in is in better touch," he said. "If you get a start and the rest bat around you, you get a chance to put up a big score. If we win series like this we can afford to carry the players who aren't in form. You know what they're capable of and they've paid dividends in the past. But you cannot rely on one individual."
That was India's leitmotif all series, and it's paid off. India lost key players to injury and Dhoni was quick to admit this series win was a real achievement, stressing on the importance of continuance. "You can't sit back and say you won the World Twenty20 or the CB Series or this series. Sachin [Tendulkar] and [Virender] Sehwag help achieve consistently, but there were injuries. We didn't have Ishant Sharma and Sehwag was in prime form. But the others contributed and I'm glad with the contributions of the new players."
The single-biggest gain, Dhoni felt, was how his batsmen handled the threat of Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan. "These were slow tracks and it was important to rotate strike," he said, "and we were able to do that and played the spinners well. We negotiated Murali well, which has been tough over the years in Sri Lanka, and we tackled Mendis well. I was impressed by the way we handed these two in the middle overs. It wasn't just about playing Mendis; it was about scoring off him. Whoever got set in made it big. A 70 on such tracks was immense."
Dhoni spoke of winning "crucial" games, and in a season where India lost consecutive finals he was relieved to have nipped this one in the bud with a game to spare. "If this was the last game of the series, tied 2-2, and we lost people would start saying that 'in the last 23 finals India have lost 18', but neither this team nor I have played 23 finals. It was crucial we finish the series before reaching this game."
It has been almost a year since Dhoni took over the limited-overs captaincy and lead India to the ICC World Twenty20 title. Reflecting on his tenure, he felt he had been given the right team and that made his job easier. "It's about the 16 guys in the team and the bench strength ... a captain is only as good as his team," Dhoni said. "A captain shares responsibilities, finds problem areas, and sends the best guy to rectify that problem. A good team makes a good captain, not the other way around. You have to let players go in the right direction; after that it is up to the individual."
The selectors have backed Dhoni's vision of youth, not without criticism, and Dhoni felt it was necessary because of the demands of today's game. "You want to have batsmen who run quickly, who can convert ones into twos and put pressure on the fielders," he said. "It is good to have a side like that. If you're scored a par score and have a fielding side which is safe then you add 15-20 more runs.
"It's not about randomly selecting players," he said. "The players who have done well domestically and on A tours have been rewarded. In the selection process you come across equally consistent players, and it gets tough. That's when you have to make the choice to take you forward. You have to give everyone enough chances, not just a few games. If he can't prove he knows what his mistakes are and can go back and correct those."
Dhoni's 193 runs and Man-of-the-Series performance has taken him back to the No. 1 ODI batting spot he held briefly in April 2006, and he credited a self-imposed absence as a relief. "I enjoyed my break but I enjoyed my training more," he said. "What you do in practice reflects in the game. I'm glad to have contributed."