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Sourav Ganguly's suggestion for a best-of-three finals in one-day competitions betrays the depths to which his confidence levels have plunged. A final offers the most capable assessment of the mental toughness of a team and how they react under pressure, because there is no second chance. The ability to raise one's game to suit the occasion and peak at just the right time, is an essential ingredient of a good team. Ganguly's remarks are a telltale sign that he knows the team is simply not good enough at the crunch. Rather then doing his damnedest to resolve the problem, he's suggesting means to avoid dealing with it. "We have to learn to win under pressure" he admitted immediately after the final, but that can be done only by playing when the pressure is the maximum, not by diffusing it across three matches.
The defeat at the Harare Sports Club last Saturday was India's seventh loss in a row in a tournament final. It all began with the Pepsi Cup against Pakistan at Bangalore in April 1999. The Indian bowlers let the game slip away in the first session by allowing Pakistan to hoist 291. Any hopes of making a match of it hinged on getting a decent start but when the Indian top order collapsed to 63/5, there was no escape route. Against the same opponents in the Coca-Cola Cup in Sharjah less than two weeks later, India won a useful toss but lost two wickets in the first over without a run on board and were rolled over for 125 to gift the match on a platter.
In the Coca-Cola Cup in Singapore in September the same year, India posted a challenging 254 despite losing Tendulkar for a duck in the first over. The bowlers had West Indies on the mat at 67/4 and later 128/5 but were clueless in the face of a ferocious assault by Ricardo Powell. Precisely one month later India entered the LG Cup final in Nairobi having swept all their matches in the round-robin league. After restricting South Africa to just 235, the batsmen fumbled a great opportunity to succumb by 26 runs with two and a half overs left unused.
The next episode in the gloomy sequence also occurred at Nairobi's Gymkhana Club Ground in October 2000. It was the climax of the ICC KnockOut and India were delighted to be inserted after losing the toss. Ganguly and Tendulkar added 141 for the opening wicket but the middle order lost its way. Still, 264 was a competitive score and when New Zealand slumped to 132/5, the signs were propitious. A crucial run-out miss relieved Chris Cairns who proceeded to shut India out with a marvellously paced effort. Later in the same month, a 245-run thumping ensued at Sri Lanka's hands in the Champions Trophy in Sharjah, a collective abdication of duty of monstrous proportion.
Looking at the pattern, India have conceded 290 or more on three of four occasions they've bowled first which puts the batsmen under enormous pressure rightaway. To have a ghost of chance, the cardinal rule is to keep wickets in hand even at the risk of falling behind the asking rate early on. But the top order has usually tried to do too much too soon, with negative results. This was exemplified against a West Indies attack last week having just three specialist bowlers. The Indians had a gilt-edged chance to step up the ante in 20 remaining overs of part time spin bowling but Sodhi and Dighe were left high and dry and just failed to close it on their own.
Batting first, India erected the foundations of victory with 250 plus scores two out of three times. In each instance, they quickly prised out the opponent's upper half but threw it away in the last 25 overs with a combination of loose bowling, lax fielding and unimaginative captaincy. It's been suggested that one reason the Indians freeze in live match situations is because they don't simulate situations of comparable pressure in the nets. But more alarmingly the Indians seem to be using defeat as a stepping stone for further defeat. Perhaps they ought to take a leaf out of author Richard Bach: "That's what learning is, after all; not whether we lose the game, but how we lose and how we've changed because of it and what we take away from it that we never had before, to apply to other games. Losing, in a curious way, is winning."