Captain Crucifixion

India have been unceremoniously bounced out of yet another Twenty20 world cup and there is a lot of blame going around and most of it is gonna be at the feet of India’s captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Being the captain of Indian cricket team is one of the hardest jobs in sports, as the Indian media and fans deal only in extremes – in praise and in condemnation.The demands of the job have consumed some of the best players the game as seen, from Sunil Gavaskar to Sachin Tendulkar, and from Kapil Dev to Rahul Dravid. Now, MS Dhoni is getting a taste of it.

When Dhoni took over the captaincy of the Twenty20 team in 2007, because the senior players had made themselves unavailable, he led a team of mostly young, still fresh on the international scene players to a world cup win. Within a year of that victory, he had become the captain of the Indian team in all 3 formats of the game and has done a wonderful job of it. He has beaten Australia in a test series, in a ODI tournament (in Australia), drew a test series against South Africa and beaten the daylights out of a Sri Lanka team etc., and all this while being named the best ODI cricketer in the world. He has not let the burden of captaincy affect his form with the bat or the gloves, unlike say, Tendulkar. The ignominious exit from the T20, for the second time in a row, without winning a game in the super 8 stage, is bound to open a can of worms. The fact that the team got exposed to short-pitched bowling for the 2nd consecutive year also doesn’t help. I have already read some opinions and conspiracy theories pointing fingers at MS Dhoni.

He manipulates the batting order so that he can score his runs and maintain a good batting average. He has an ongoing feud with Sehwag and that’s why Sehwag made himself unavailable for this tournament. He cares not for his country but only for the millions from his franchise.

These are baseless accusations and serve no good purpose. These are bandied about by some misguided (albeit passionate) fans. Of course, the media in India flames the fire as sensational “news” gets them eyeballs. Its similar to in 2003, when India barely managed to beat Netherlands and got whupped by Australia in their 2nd game of the world cup tournament in South Africa, some people threw stones at Rahul Dravid’s family house, cow dung on their cars etc., which is ridiculous. But then, the team got on a run, beating all comers but eventually got outclassed by Australia (again) in the finals. I don’t think the stone throwing was the motivation for the players, in fact it has the opposite effect. Now, they are worried for their family’s safety when the only thing they should be focused on is cricket.

When asked about playing in one of the many pressure games that Dhoni has led India in, he responded, “Every game we play for India, is a high pressure game. It does not matter who the opposition is, or what bearing the outcome of the game has. We have passionate fans in India and we try to do our best to play to their expectations.” MS Dhoni has displayed an outstanding acumen as a captain and a remarkable ability to think on his feet, to have a substantial effect on the game’s result. He has been able to handle all the accolades that have come his way with ease and has carried the crown of thorns quite handsomely, so far. He has been “captain cool” on and off the field.

Its actually quite easy to see in online forums where they claim Dhoni just gets lucky with some of the moves he makes on the field. If anyone has ever played the game at any decent level, they should know that it takes a a lot of mental fortitude to be a captain. Its having the conviction in your thought process to follow through with it, knowing fully that if things don’t pan out, you are going to be second-guessed by armchair experts all across the cricket mad nation. For this remarkable quality the he so naturally possesses, I admire Dhoni. He has shown over the years he has a clear thinking cricketing brain and treat the game for what it is. A game. Never too high, Never too low.

However, some of the decisions that have been taken by him and the team management do open the doors for questioning. The decision to bat second after winning the toss against both Australia and West Indies is still baffling! In the crucial “must win to have any hopes of semifinal” today, when net run rate was gonna be the decider, he opted to bat first. These defied conventional logic.

The stubbornness to stick with Ravindra Jadeja for another game after he was shellacked by Australia is quite puzzling. The roles of some of the key players such as Yuvraj and YK Pathan were not very defined. Were they supposed to tee-off right away? When it was realized Indian top order couldn’t just “pull” their way out of trouble, why was there more direction from the captain and coach to tell them to just ride it out and then plunder the runs in the last 10 overs, while keeping wickets in hand?

It has become quite obvious that the main reason behind the recent failure begins with the composition of the team. The selection committee was caught wrong-footed in thinking that ALL the pitches in WI were gonna be slow and low, hence the side packed with power hitters and spinners and part-time spinning all rounders. This was rudely exposed in the ONLY bouncy pitch left in the Caribbean. Another big reason is that the Indian team members, although playing in the IPL for different franchises, did not get together till only 3 days before the start of the world cup. This does not allow for any gelling of the group and defining the roles of players. I am not making this as an excuse, since the schedules were known well in advance, the team management needed to have a plan in place for that.

Let’s see. The team scored 130+ against Australia, 150+ against WI, 180+ against South Africa and another 160+ against Sri Lanka. That seems like a pretty decent batting performance (although the Aus game involved a top order collapse and only Rohit Sharma more than 30). So, the bowlers have had a huge role to play in this failure. They have let SA score 170+, Aus 180+, WI 160+ and SL 160+. The fact that we did not have bowlers who could exploit the bounce in the pitch in Barbados was sad to see. Ishant Sharma, Where art thou? It didn’t help that couple of crucial catches were put down too!

The knives are out for MS Dhoni. But he is one of the very, very rare breed of captains that do not let things outside the lines affect him. India is actually fortuitous that they lucked in to him taking the captaincy in 2007. Instead of just bashing him on this reverse, it will be prudent to actually hold the opinions back and get to the root of the problem, the lack of quality players in the ranks of the up-and-comers!

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15 responses to “Captain Crucifixion

  1. KP has won it

    Very well said … Dhoni has had a shocking tournament , we all know he is way way better than that .. he got couple of decisions wrong but shit happens ….

    i too believe that dhoni promoting himself to improve his average is a bunch of crap . he is the captain it is his call and what he does is best for team ….. as far as bowling i dont see it improving in near future we have go to live with what we have …

    Hope india lessons are learned and we get better

    • Thanks for the comment. Everything aside, it is actually mind-boggling to see the number of fast bowlers from India that have gone by the way side after showing so much promise their first international season: Irfan, Sreesanth, VRV singh, RP Singh, Ishant. Nehra has just made the comeback this year after lanuishing for so many years with injuries and lack of form.

  2. Well said and written.

    It is time now to concentrate on the root cause of the problem. I would not blame the selection of the team. It has more to do with developing more sporting wickets and taking extra care of extincting breed of fast bowlers. When you consider all other teams (except Bangladesh), they all have at least one (two/three in top teams) fast bowler who can make batsmen hop around. Genuine pace bowlers are the need of the hour. Our spin strength is always taken care of by the fact that we have spinning wickets and the inability of international batsmen to play spin convincingly.

    Having a quickie like that in the pack also helps our batsmen to train better on fast and bouncy tracks. For this problem to solved, I think we are looking at a time span of about 3-4 years at least. The fact that the WC is in India should not affect our chances. We can do away with bouncy tracks for sure.

    As an ardent cricket fan, hope is all I can turn to.

    • Very philosophical. There are a few things to be sorted out. To identify players that have the classical game (Kohli, Pujara) and blood them in all formats. As I just commented above, the falling away of fast bowlers needs to be arrested. and soon at that.

  3. Subash, I have a request for your blog. In fact, I have also been motivated to write about the nature of fan following the Indian cricket team has. Although, people have their right to express their views, as a cricketer, I feel some of the comments are unfair. Esp. the ones about MSD and SRT. Perhaps, you could write a statistical analysis of these views and summarize the expectation an average Indian fan has for our team. That would clearly present in good light how tough we are and how incredible our Indian team is to have been satisfying their fans 75-80% of the time.

  4. I cannot agree with you more that it was the bowling that did us in. We need fast tracks in India. A fast track helps the batsmen to develop better instincts. Fast tracks also help in breeding quick bowlers. At one point I was excited about VRV Singh and even Manpreet Gony….they have the height and build to get that bounce from the track, but what’s the point of them bowling all day in Ranji matches on flat tracks where most batsmen score double hundreds like fifties. Right now, Dhoni does not have a strike quick bowler to throw the ball to when in need.

    • Its actually funny that, for a nation of fans that feasted on limited over format of the game, we have become quite good in test cricket. Our bowlers, Zaheer et al, though lack the pace, have the nous to suss out an opposition in the longer form of the game. True that we need wickets with bounce, which can aid both pace and spin. But, considering the fact that ODIs, T20s and test matches that “have to” last 5 days bring in the most advertising money, there is no real motivation to move away from producing anything other than flat pitches.

  5. I think India look a very mediocre team when the openers fail. The failure of Vijay, Gautam also had a major part to play in the failure. The point is that we should have experimented with sending in Yusuf as the opener with Gautam (like the WC07 finals), and see to it that he gives a good start in the first six. Having Yusuf bat at the top which is a gamble if it pays off – it pays handsomely, while if he fails, its fine as we expected that of Vijay too. I wonder if we missed someone solid in the middle order around whom the innings revolves – like Rahul Dravid. But all said and done, this team is too good to be defined by this failure, and I am certain that we will bounce back stronger than before.

    • Raghav – Thanks for stopping by. India has looked to its openers invariably to set up a platform from which the middle order takes over the bludgeoning job. This is true in all 3 formats. Experimenting with YKP up top — The fact that he was exposed even in indian conditions during the IPL may have played a hand in this. Very true that the team has way too much talent to have busted out like this. But they will be back.

  6. On your point that MSD should have chosen to field, I thought it really made sense in opting to bat first. Batting first, in order to achieve the NRR, they needed to win by a margin of 20runs. No team except Eng has chased a score more than 150 in this tournament so far.
    And no team in my opinion would be able to chase even 130 against SL in 17 odd overs.
    Talking about the lack of pace bowlers etc, I can’t help but compare to the Pak team’s bowling. They do not posses great pace. They seem to be pretty confident with their slow/spin bowling and are seen succeeding. As far as T20 is concerned, it’d would have to be intelligent bowling (yorker length, slow).
    One of the commentators on air was mentioning unless its going to be a 150K+ kind of bowling (Tait, Johnson et al.), you wouldn’t really benefit on the bouncy tracks.
    Fast tracks in India etc, we have heard everyone saying that after every Aus tour, would it really
    I think, the same team would do better probably in a ODI.
    India ought to play more of international T20 matches and identify the right mix.

    • Prash – Its not the point of “no team has been able to”… I thought we needed to put a decent bowling effort in and then go out and chase it in 17.4 overs. As simple as that. If we lose in the process, so be it. At least, we controlled our destiny and went down swinging.

      Pakistan have figured out the format. It helps to have all rounders such as Afridi, Razzaq who can bat any where in the order and bowl any time. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a Mohd Aamer in your squad with Asif as back up đŸ™‚

      I agree — we have not made the right mix of dashers, compact batsmen, all rounders. It looked like a team put together strictly based on reputation.

  7. Subash-

    Just got to reading your post and must say that I completely agree with you. I know that my opinions have already been discussed in the above posts, but would like to reiterate-

    Fast tracks are definitely a must. The idea might be to start with a couple of pitches that can play fast and take it from there. Definitely not an overnight win, but something that I believe will prove helpful in the long run.

    I am not sure if you agree with me on this, but we do need to groom fast bowlers among our bench strength. How? I really don’t know, maybe pick them from a Dennis Lillee camp or something. I have always been under the impression that Ponting played the hooks and pulls so well because he faced the likes of Mcgrath, Gillespie and likes in the nets. Also, the IPL should not shadow the fact that bowlers are just as important in 20-20s.

    I am a big fan of MSD and would not like to criticize him on the gambles he takes on the field. A gamble is just what it is- a gamble, works both ways. I am sure we are going to “bounce” back albeit twice bitten, thrice shy.

    • Jagga – welcome. Here is what MSD said in the post match press conference “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,”

      It can’t be any more clear.

    • Regarding the captain taking gambles on the field, I have no problems with it. Its the fact that, when those gambles pay off, People immediately anoint MSD as the next coming of Einstein but when they don’t, are way too ready with the “dunce” cap. There needs to be some moderation on how we praise the captain/team and how we drag them through the mud, as soon as they lose in something. I am all for being passionate fans and rooting your team on, but that’s when the game is on. Before and after the game, even the most passionate of fans need to think with their head and stop with these sudden knee-jerk reactions. Sensationalism – Need to avoid it.

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