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Exactly eight years to the day since he first captained India in a Test,
against Bangladesh in Dhaka
, Sourav Ganguly marshalled the resources one
last time. The ninth Australian wicket had fallen and the fielders were
hovering around Cameron White and Mitchell Johnson with Harbhajan Singh
and Amit Mishra having scripted a dramatic post-lunch collapse. It was a
remarkable gesture from Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and it said much about how
quickly he has grown into the job. A less secure man would have wanted to
hog the limelight, but by ceding space to one of Indian cricket's all-time
greats for a couple of overs, Dhoni showed just how aware he was of the
It came through in the tactics he employed as well. There had been
scathing comments made about the 8-1 fields and wide bowling on the third
morning, but there was tacit acknowledgement from Ricky Ponting that he
would have loved it if his bowlers could have exercised similar control.
Dhoni may have re-ignited debates about the spirit of cricket and a
win-at-all-costs mentality, but as far as the team was concerned, eight
wickets for 166 runs in a full day on a batsman-friendly pitch was nothing
to sneeze at.
"He has that extra bit of luck you need," said Ganguly later, and he
wasn't being uncharitable. There were moments in the match when Dhoni's
leadership appeared bereft of direction, but then something would happen
that made you forget what had preceded it. So it was on Monday afternoon
with Matthew Hayden flailing away at the bowling with the air of a man who
refused to countenance defeat. Runs were being leaked at an alarming rate
and there were no close catchers for either Hayden or Michael Hussey as
Dhoni concentrated on cutting off the fours.
Then, he threw the ball to Mishra. The game changed. His fourth ball from
round the wicket was a perfectly pitched topspinner that reared up like
many a Kumble special had over the previous two decades. All Hussey could
do was lob to slip, and the mini-crisis was over. Hayden then tried to
improvise once too often against Harbhajan and after that, the outcome of
the match was in no doubt.
The early belligerence from Australia, and Hayden in particular, had
pushed Dhoni on to the defensive quickly. Ishant Sharma, the standout
bowler of the series, bowled to an 8-1 field against Simon Katich, and had
seven on the off side for Hayden. But with plenty of runs being
surrendered behind the wicket, Zaheer's opening spell of six overs cost 44
Again, Dhoni came up with the right change. Stroke of genius or plain
luck, Harbhajan's arrival at the bowling crease changed things. Dhoni put
down a chance off the second ball he bowled, but there was an element of
recklessness in Hayden's approach that made India believe that playing the
patience game would bring about a breakthrough.
India managed just 21.3 overs in that first session, and the shadow cast
by dismal over-rates that caused Ponting to take his eye off the ball on
the fourth evening appeared to affect Dhoni too. With Virender Sehwag and
Harbhajan bowling offspin in tandem, Hayden was only too happy to tee off,
especially with the variety of sweeps that caused such devastation back in
Dhoni though never loses his cool. The field went out, the game seemed to
drift and then Mishra came on. It was almost as though Australia had been
lulled into a false sense of security and then struck with an upper-cut.
Within minutes, the fielders were swarming around the bat and the
men-on-the-rope tactics quickly forgotten. Mishra was far too much for the
tail to handle, and there was just enough uneven bounce to make Harbhajan
dastardly difficult to play.
|A less secure man would have wanted to hog the limelight, but by ceding space to one of Indian cricket's all-time greats for a couple of overs, Dhoni showed just how aware he was of the bigger picture |
"There will be greater tests for MS, especially when he takes the team
abroad," said Ganguly afterwards. It was a quiet reminder to everyone of
just how hapless India once were when they left home comforts behind. But
though Dhoni may not quite have been Safe Hands behind the stumps in this
game, there's enough intuition and spark in his leadership to suggest that
Indian cricket's future could be very bright indeed.
At the start of the millennium, Ganguly started the journey to "raise
Indian cricket's profile overseas". For 10 minutes this afternoon just
before a famous triumph was clinched, the past and future were
intertwined. In so many ways, Dhoni is the best man to carry forward the
Ganguly flame. These could well be the best of times.