Dhoni's team is front-runner

Dhoni's team is front-runner
Hardik Pandya of India reacts after their victory in the first Twenty20 cricket international between India and Australia at the Adelaide Oval in Adelaide.
PHOTO: AFP

IF BEING settled was a crime, India would be on top of the rogues gallery! When India went to Australia a month and a half ago, there were more question marks than tick marks about the playing 11.

Nine matches, and an 8-1 record later, the question marks have been erased. It doesn't mean India will win but at least they go into a major tournament knowing not just what the best 11 is, but also what role each player plays. A captain couldn't ask for more.

By Jan 20, when India lost in Canberra to go down 0-4 in the one-day series, there were shadows over Dhoni's future, finding a new ball attack was like managing inflation, and the bowling looked as likely to win a game as the Lok Sabha is to pass a Bill.

Even Ravichandran Ashwin had been left out. Then, Manish Pandey's century at Sydney happened as did the unexpected debut of Jasprit Bumrah. And 11 days after that Canberra game, again in Sydney, India produced one of its memorable run chases. No one could have predicted as dramatic a turnaround.

By the time India came to the Asia Cup, there was only one spot that was open to discussion.

Through two innings played in contrasting styles, Yuvraj Singh ended that as well. He held his end up against a rampaging Pakistan attack and then, against Sri Lanka, the swagger returned and with it, the most beautiful bat swing in the game. Now, India are favourites and a different challenge confronts them. But it is a more pleasant challenge than figuring out who to throw the ball to for the first over.

I believe there are three major factors behind this stunning revival. Two of those have traditionally been problem areas. Before Ashish Nehra and Jasprit Bumrah came together to form an opening bowling combination that nobody, to be completely honest, could have anticipated, Ashwin was India's most reliable power play bowler.

That might be a feather in his cap but it didn't reflect well on the team. Since the veteran and the raw recruit have come together, India have started taking wickets upfront, wickets are still a big part of T20 cricket, and Dhoni has been able to manoeuvre the bowling the way he wants to.

Dhoni has also lamented the absence of a seam bowling all-rounder and didn't seem to be convinced about either Stuart Binny or Rishi Dhawan. In pretty dramatic style, Hardik Pandya has stood up as just the player Dhoni wanted.

He is quick enough, hits the deck hard and while he has a fair bit going for him he has, to be honest, probably over-performed as a bowler at this stage, both in terms of experience and expertise. But it is the batting option he provides that is invaluable. India needed one carefree player to go and scatter the bowling; necessarily someone who wasn't a designated match winner. In Pandya India have that floater.

The third, perhaps the most critical, is the ability Virat Kohli has to find a peak while already standing on one. Watching him these last few weeks has been fascinating. He doesn't play the reverse sweep or the switch hit, hardly ever the scoop or the paddle and even the upper cut is rarely sighted.

He is winning matches and taking apart attacks playing cricket shots as the world knew them before the exotic ones arrived. Where A.B. de Villiers has you on the edge of the seat with 360 degree strokeplay, Kohli enthrals you with flicks, drives and punched shots. That two such players should grace our game at the same time is to provide us with many riches.

To my mind there are only two concerns India have at the moment and even those are the by-products of success. First, the bench could end up being rusty, especially since Dhoni wants his first 11 to immerse themselves in every game. Second, a large part of Dhoni's planning is built around getting his two quicks to bowl three overs each upfront. If there is an early assault, and on the batting tracks in India that is eminently possible, India will be scrambling for options. Maybe Ashwin will stand up there.

Traditionally, India have been at their best playing underdogs. But this side seems to enjoy playing frontrunner. And that is a good thing because going into the World T20, that is what they are!

tabla@sph.com.sg


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