Seven games. Seven wins. You would think the captain would be happy but Mahendra Singh Dhoni wants his bowlers to raise their game in the end overs. Yesterday, under lights in a tense chase at the R Premadasa, Sri Lanka scored 48 runs in the second batting Powerplay to run India close.
Ishant Sharma, eventually, decided the contest in favour of India with a lovely mix of yorkers and slower balls but not before creating a few wrinkles on Dhoni's brow. Zaheer Khan, who didn't have a great opening spell, gave away only 27 in his last five overs as opposed to the 40 that Ishant leaked, even though Ishant's last over cost just a single. In the batting Powerplay, Zaheer went for 20 in three overs while Ishant gave away 22 from two.
Prima facie, it would be cruel to pin down the bowlers who won a gripping game for you in the end but it's the path to perfection that India wants to tread on. When he stepped up to receive the Man-of-the-Match award, Ishant mumbled that it was not one of his best performances. Here are the details why the captain and the bowler were not too flushed.
"If you are running from the bowling mark, you need to have the thought that this is the ball you are going to bowl," Dhoni said. "Accordingly you place your fielders. If you are in two minds, you are really confused about what you are doing. If you have just one thought, you can execute it better."
The details don't reveal poor bowling as we conventionally know it - no width, rank long-hops or full tosses were offered - but an imperfect execution of plans. In the 43rd over, Ishant bowled an attempted yorker which flew off the inner edge past the short fine-leg fielder. In the 45th he bowled a short ball which was pulled to the unmanned deep midwicket boundary before another attempted yorker was squeezed past short third man. Zaheer, who Dhoni felt had an off day, slipped in a few full deliveries which were dispatched easily to unguarded areas.
"If you are bowling a bouncer, you don't need a long on and a long-off," Dhoni said. "If you are bowling a slower one, you don't really need a third man, you can have a deep midwicket. At the same time you can confuse the batsmen also have this field and bowl a yorker. But if the ball is completely different than what the field is, then at times, you have a greater chance to give away a boundary."
It's clarity of thought that Dhoni is seeking from the bowlers. In Dhoni speak, "It's better to have a plan - may be a bad plan - in mind than be confused".
During the end overs, Dhoni was seen running to his bowlers repeatedly, extending his arms in anger when a fielder fumbled or was not alert enough to the situation. So is Dhoni the cool captain? How does Dhoni see himself? "You are never cool. In international cricket when there is pressure on you, you are never cool," Dhoni said. "You give the opportunity to the bowler and say you bowl according to your plan, to your field but at times when it doesn't work, you turn from a democratic captain to a monopoly. You become like a king and say no more powers, this is the field and you bowl according to the field."
Then he went on to say something very interesting about how he wants the bowlers to grow and what he wants his bowlers to do. "It's always better to give the first preference to the bowler. With experience, with their own plan, they will get better. You don't want them to be running around to the captain to find out what they should bowl. They will grow if they learn by themselves.
"By then, they would have matured and learnt that certain plans worked against these batsmen, these didn't work and will know what to bowl. They automatically mature. If you keep spoon feeding them, they won't learn too much."
Like he shuffles his batting line-up, Dhoni jiggles with the bowling order as well. "It depends on who is the third seamer. If Praveen Kumar is playing, the best opportunity for him to take wickets is with the new ball as he is a swing bowler," he said. "Ishant can bowl with a new and slightly older ball. In ODIs, you generally have three fast bowlers and you have to combine them together so that as a unit you become a good bowling attack."
This Indian ODI attack is indeed looking pretty good and is bound to get better once Harbhajan Singh returns. Till then, a few more wrinkles might still furrow Dhoni's forehead.
Sri Lanka (and Ceylon)
India vs Sri Lanka
India tour of Sri Lanka
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo