Tag Archives: Australia

The i3j3Cricket Podcast Episode-1

Come to India, we will show you

India lost 0-4 to England in England 2011 through poor preparation, a wrong team, a sudden and indescribable inability to play the seaming ball, injuries and overall fatigue. Oh! And the opposition played brilliantly too.

India then went on to lose 0-4 to Australia in Australia. Injuries and fatigue could not be blamed for that loss. India had prepared reasonably well too. One or two players had warmed the bench right through the tour — somewhat surprisingly and with some inflexible obstinacy on the part of team management. But overall, the touring party was perhaps the best that India could have fielded. Yet India had lost. Badly.

The captain, Dhoni was blamed for his wrong selections. Dhoni was also blamed for his ultra-defensive field placings. ‘Rift’ remained a recurring refrain. Aging seniors in the team were blamed. Two of these seniors subsequently retired.

The team spoke in many tongues on that disastrous tour of Australia. In one of the one-day games, Dhoni achieved a victory with a few balls to spare and with many hearts in mouths. In the press conference after the game, Gautam Gambhir, who had scored 92 in that game, said that the game ought to have been closed off in the 48th over itself. On another occasion, Dhoni responded to a team selection issue and indicated that some of the seniors were too slow and cost the team 20 runs on the field. Sehwag responded to that statement with surprise.

All was not well with the team. Or so it appeared.

Mohinder Amarnath, the then chairman of selection committee, wanted Dhoni removed as captain. The BCCI President, N. Srinivasan, vetoed that decision. Much band-aid was needed, and applied. Much sand-papering was needed, and performed. Much shoving-under-carpet was required, and accomplished.

India looked to rebuilding a tired, aging and weary team that appeared unready for transition. Just as everything else, we do not plan a transition. It just happens. We are like that only. Some felt that the transition process had already been delayed. Yet, India had the perfect opportunity to rebuild at home over a one year period. And India did that through a mix of worthy retirements and good luck through injuries and bad form. Slowly, but surprisingly effectively, under the watchful eyes of a new selection committee headed by Sandeep Patil, the team transitioned.

Ishant Sharma had sledged David Warner in the Perth Test of the Australia series: “Come to India, we will show you,” he had said. Gautam Gambhir, the then team India opening batsman, issued a similar challenge to the Australians and added that India had to prepare “rank turners” for visiting teams. Gambhir and Ishant Sharma betrayed a defensive mindset. They also provided much fodder for the Indian press corps that visited Australia with the India team. The press was more interested in blood, blame and bludgeoning than they were in understanding what exactly was going on with and within the team.

Gambhir was right in asking for “rank turners” to be prepared. I am not sure why there is much disdain for “dust bowls” and “rank turners”. I haven’t heard too many people say, “Disgraceful pitch. Look at that bounce and lateral movement on day-one itself,” but have heard many a person say “What a disgrace! Turn and bounce on day-one itself?” Spinners are as much a part of cricket as pace bowlers are. The game, particularly in Australia, needs to embrace spin as much as it does, pace. Words like “dust bowl” and “pitch doctoring” have been used as pejoratives for far too long in our game. There is nothing wrong with a turning track.

And so, a few turning tracks were prepared to welcome the Australian team. The visiting Australians did not have the skill or the capabilities to cope with the turning ball. Suddenly, the shoe was on the other foot.

The captain, Clarke, was blamed for his wrong team selections. He was also blamed for his somewhat strange captaincy decisions. ‘Rift’ remained a recurring refrain. Immature juniors in the team were blamed.

The point is that just as India needs to prepare more seaming tracks for the domestic Ranji Trophy competition, Australia has to prepare spinning “dust bowls” for some of their domestic games. Dust is not hard to find. And a bowl ought to be available in Australia. Several of the leading talents in the Australian team were badly exposed after coping very poorly with spin, and this showed in Australia’s poor returns from the series.

When India toured England and Australia, there was a sense that there were a few players who had been left behind who ought to have made the team. There were certainly a few players who warmed the bench during those two tours who, perhaps, ought to have got a game. Injury and fatigue plagued at least one of those tours. The real worry for Australia is that the team that they brought over to India was probably their best team. It is likely, therefore, that the rebuilding process will take just that little bit longer for the Australian team.

This is not to say that India has rebuilt the team completely. No. The work has just begun. And as Sameer Chopra says in his blog article, “I am reluctant to draw too many conclusions about the future of Indian cricket based on one series win, at home, against a team undergoing a transition of its own. South Africa, at home, awaits. But the presence of young batsmen who show a hunger for runs, spinners who show aggression, and most importantly, a winning feeling whose memory will, hopefully, stick around and provide some wind beneath their sails in that land. On its pitches, against names like Steyn, Morkel and Philander, there is sufficient cause to hope that no more inversions of this present score lie around the corner.”

A stern test awaits this Indian team now. However, the 4-0 win over Australia was no ordinary feat. And it was delivered by captain M. S. Dhoni leading from the front in the first Test of the series. In his forceful wake came telling contributions from M. Vijay (16 Tests), Ravichandran Ashwin (16 Tests), Cheteshwar Pujara (13 Tests), Shikar Dhawan (1 Test), Ravindra Jadeja (5 Tests), Bhuvaneshwar Kumar (4 Tests), Virat Kohli (18 Tests) and Pragyan Ojha (22 Tests) and Ishant Sharma (51 Tests). This was a significant series win achieved by the above nine players with a total experience total of 146 Tests between them; one in which a particular player with an experience of 198 Tests hadn’t really contributed much.

Barring the introduction of Ajinkya Rahane, most of India’s selection decisions were good and more importantly, paid off. Will Rahane get the benefit of doubt? Subash Jayaraman thinks he should not. That apart, the right players were picked at the right time. And the right players were dropped at the right time. It would appear that this team now responds to the captain much more than the team which represented the worrying transition between 0-8 and 4-0.

I wish India was heading to South Africa next week; a tour that will separate the men from the boys, wheat from chaff. But we have to endure the IPL and a stunning array of meaningless ODIs before India goes head to head against South Africa. And it will be a while yet before we can say “Come to India, we will show you,” as the next domestic Test series is some time away…

— Mohan (@mohank)

Who’s more ‘clutch’? Tendulkar, Lara or Ponting?

By Ajit Bhaskar (@ajit_bhaskar)

Who is the most clutch among these three legends from our generation?

The Stage

Given the somewhat sensitive title of the post, I tried to think of a lot of emotional, heartfelt introductory content but I failed miserably. But it suffices to say that these three players are the best from our generation, particularly in the ODI format of the game. A couple of folks (Ian Chappell and Nasser Hussain) have opined on who’s the greatest among the three ‘modern greats’. Honestly, it is a tough ask to rate the three for each is excellent in his own ways.

I’m not here to ‘rate’ which one of them is the best among the three. What I’m going to address, is each batsman’s ability to perform in the clutch, which is one of the measures of a player’s greatness. After all, such performances tend to ‘define a player’s legacy’!

I am going to compare (statistically), the performance of these three players under ‘clutch’ situations.

Also, it makes some sense to compare these three players in particular because:

  • They have played in the same era.
  • They are all top order batsmen and have spent a vast majority of their careers batting in 1-4 spots in the batting order.

Ground Rules/Assumptions

  • I’m going to restrict this conversation to ODIs alone.
  • Clutch’ is defined as chasing a target. I will try to make things more granular as I proceed further.
  • Only India, Australia, West Indies, Pakistan, New Zealand, England and South Africa have been considered for this analysis. Sorry Zimbabwe, Bangladesh et al.
  • Only run chases are considered.
  • The pronouns HE and HIS used in generic sentences encompass BOTH male and female human beings. Do not hassle me with ‘sexist’ and other epithets.

A brief note on ‘clutch’

Various images flash across our minds the instant we hear the word clutch. Like Michael Jordan’s buzzer beating “The Shot” against Cleveland (followed by Jordan jumping in the air and then throwing his elbows exactly three times after planting his feet on the ground), Javed Miandad’s last ball six off Chetan Sharma (I hate Nataraj pencils just for that) and so on. As far as ODIs are concerned, a clutch situation typically involves chasing a target. The pressure that is associated with chasing a target, particularly when two good, competitive teams are playing makes for good drama and excellent cricket. The players who shine repeatedly and consistently under such circumstances become legends of the game.

The reason for emphasis on run chase will become clearer during the course of this article.

The Statistics

These are obtained from Cricinfo directly after applying a filter for ‘fielding first’.

Key observations:

  • They’ve been involved in enough run chases to qualify for statistical analysis
  • Lara has scored nearly half his runs chasing targets!
  • The ‘chasing average’ of all three players is pretty close to their career averages. This suggests that the pressure associated with a run chase doesn’t influence their performance significantly. In fact, Lara (on an average), scores 3 more runs during chasing.
  • All players show the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, i.e. elevated averages when their teams win during a run chase and reduced averages when their teams lose while chasing a target.
  • It’s the extent of this syndrome exhibited by the three players that is quite intriguing.
  • If we define Differential Chasing Average or D = Chasing Average during Wins – Chasing Average during Losses, it represents the degree of discrepancy in individual performance while a team goes on to win or lose. In principle, a ‘legendary’ player is expected to play the same way and produce at a high level regardless of the outcome of the game and the performance of other players on the team. So lower the D value, greater the degree of consistency of a player during run chases.
  • The D values for Tendulkar, Lara and Ponting are 19.53, 40.11 and 39 respectively.
  • Let’s pause and ponder over this for a moment. Taking Lara as example, when WI chases a total successfully, he tends to score FORTY MORE RUNS than when WI fails to chase a target. While an average of ~68 runs is fantastic during successful a run chase, that also indicates a lot of variation in performance. In other words, consistency is lacking. The same is true of Ponting (Differential = 39). However, the key difference between Lara and Ponting is that when their teams lose while chasing a target, Lara still manages to score a decent 27.5 runs, Ponting manages only 19 runs.
  • Tendulkar, on the other hand, shows the least variation (D = 19.53). In fact, the variation is half of Lara’s and Ponting’s. This indicates more consistent performance during run chases.
  • Lara has the best Chasing Average in Wins by a distance. He scores nearly 10 more runs than Ponting and 16 more runs than Tendulkar during successful run chases.
  • Tendulkar has the best Chasing Average in Losses. It’s is about 13 runs or 67% greater than Ponting’s. He also scores 4 more runs than Lara during unsuccessful rn chases.
 Figure 1. Graphical representation of performance of Sachin Tendulkar (SRT, blue), Brian Lara (BL, Red) and Ricky Ponting (RP, green) during run chases.

 

Cranking up the pressure to ‘ultimate clutch’

While the analysis so far has provided an indication of the extent of consistency of these players, it hasn’t truly separated them as to who is the best among the three. So I’ll up the ante a little bit and crank up the pressure.

I’d like to evaluate these players’ performances under extreme pressure.  In many cases, teams are chasing fairly small targets of 100 or 150. While the task is still challenging, it is not as daunting as chasing a larger target. Say 250.

How do these players fare when chasing targets of 250 or above? The reason for choosing 250 becomes clearer when we take a look at how teams fare when they chase such targets.

Data Acquisition

  • Get the ODI inning by inning list for Tendulkar on cricinfo.
  • Set a filter for ‘fielding first’.
  • Open every single match/scorecard and choose only those where targets of 250 or above were chased.
  • Note the runs scored in each inning under two columns based on whether his team won or lost.
  • Calculate various parameters (Average, average during wins and losses etc.)
  • Not outs are considered as outs for calculating averages
  • Repeat the process for Lara and Ponting. Note that in Ponting’s case, a tied match is included for calculating chasing average.

Here’s how the three batsmen fare:

Key observations:

  • There is a LOT of collective failure! Just take a look at the W-L records. With these legends representing India, West Indies and Australia respectively, they have won ~30, 25 and 40% of their matches while chasing 250+ targets. The collective success rate is just 31%!
  • So, if anybody tells you chasing 250+ is an easy task, just show him this table. Even the ‘invincible Aussies’, who have boasted some of the game’s premier batsmen, bowlers and perhaps some the most balanced sides ever, have failed to win even half the games while chasing 250 or above!
  • Tendulkar’s average while chasing 250+ targets (39.9) is virtually same as his regular chasing average of 40.03. This is remarkable consistency. Lara and Ponting on the other hand, tend to score nearly 5 and 3 runs lower than their regular chasing averages respective, when chasing 250+ targets.
  • Tendulkar also averages the most during 250+ chases. While Tendulkar and Lara are separated by one run, Tendulkar scores nearly 3 more runs than Ponting.
  • The differential (D) values for Tendulkar, Lara and Ponting are 10.3, 34.2 and 46.6 respectively.
  • Let me emphasize a bit more on the D values. Regardless of W or L, you can expect consistent performance from Tendulkar. Lara and Ponting, on the other hand, tend to play extremely well when their respective teams are winning, but tend to score poorly when their sides are on the losing side. This is particularly true of Ponting, whose average of 18.5 when the Aussies lose chasing targets 250 (probability is 26 out of 44 games or 59%) or above is quite frankly, poor!
  • WI has lost 39 out of 52 games while chasing 250+. But even under these circumstances, Lara pretty much assures you 30 runs (chasing avg. during losses).
  • Tendulkar, on the other hand, gets you 7 more runs than Lara and nearly 18 more runs than Ponting on days when your team is not doing a good job at chasing. This is a very significant difference in my opinion, given the fact that India and WI do not end up on the winning side often while chasing 250+ targets.
  • But when their teams win, Lara and Ponting fire and fare much better than Tendulkar. This is clear from their chasing averages during wins.

Figure 2. Graphical representation of performance during 250+ run chases for Tendulkar (blue), Lara (red) and Ponting (green).

Bottom Line

The bottom line is, no matter how high the pressure is, whether the game is being played on earth or elsewhere, no matter what kind of target the team is chasing, Tendulkar provides the most steady, consistent performance. Lara is a gambling man’s pick, while Ponting is (compared to Tendulkar and Lara) more of a hit or miss case. If snoring is a problem, you may need ZQuiet.

To me, this analysis puts Tendulkar and Lara a cut above Ponting. Particularly because Ponting has enjoyed the benefit of better overall teams than Lara and Tendulkar have enjoyed over their careers. But more importantly, the averages of 18.95 during unsuccessful run chases and 18.5 during unsuccessful run chases involving 250+ targets is something I wouldn’t call ‘stuff of legends’.

In a nutshell, if I were to pick one of these three legends to help chase my team a target of 250 or above, which in my book, is a clutch situation given the rate of failure involved, I’d flip a coin. Heads – Tendulkar, Tails – Lara.

Sorry Ponting, you just don’t make the cut on my list. Certainly not in ODIs.

Cloud Cuckoo Land

Based on a conversation between @sdayanand and @achettup

A ‘go-kart‘ once ‘flipped‘ over a cuckoo’s nest,
And the frightened ‘bird‘ flew away.
While the ‘fast go-kart drivers‘ were just ‘disappointed‘,
The ‘bird’ was thoroughly ‘embarrassed‘.

But then, the battle-hardened drivers had been around the block a few times,
For them, ‘age was only a number‘.
And with them, a ‘knee-jerk‘ ‘goodbye‘ would be unnecessary.
But, a ‘deep point‘ had already been made…

Alas and Alack! The real challenge was for those watching,
Who needed to be ‘mentally strong‘ and overcome a ‘mental block‘.
For, at 5am, although the ‘time wasn’t right‘,
They needed to be ‘Keyboard Saints‘.

All along, the ‘Bird complained‘ that
The ‘verbal abuse‘ had been thoroughly unnecessary.
Yet, he did get to a landmark, and when he did,
He ‘flipped‘ it and spoke of mothers and sisters!

In the end though, the last laugh was on the bird,
The Go-Kart remained ‘unlucky‘ and we were informed,
That in (some) cloud cuckoo land,
The argument/bird might circle in, on a ‘rank turner‘.

— Mohan

India tour of Aus. Report Card.

It’s your call now.

Another Australian Tour…

I remember having followed only two of India’s previous tours to Australia, and those were pretty poorly done too.

When India toured Australia in that 2004-ish period, I was in school, in my danger zone of my school life – 10th standard. So, naturally, cable television was off, and I had only DD for any news. All India Radio wouldn’t do commentary. So, I’d have to wait till the last five minutes of the news to hear about the score and maybe a couple of clips from the session. I would then devour into the morning newspaper and gobble up two pages full of reports and articles and opinion columns in The Hindu. That pic of Ajit Agarkar, celebrating during his 6-wicket spell, I remember appeared in the middle of the page, and the crease of newspaper’s fold made the photo look awkward. Nevertheless, Adelaide win was reported live on DD News, well celebrated. Steve Waugh’s final test was well appreciated, though it prevented us from the win.

Next time ’round, I was in college, into my 2nd year of engineering, when India went to Australia in 2007/08. It was during the vacation that the Boxing Day test happened, and for some reason, I had missed most of it, watched highlights and got updates on mobile phones from pals who were watching, though. Can only remember Zak’s ball to Ponting, hitting the top of off after the ball from around the wicket seamed away just enough to tease Ponting’s bat’s edge to shame. I was in college for the Sydney test. Friends from around the country had just returned for the new semester. We had a lot of people to blame during the course of the match. You could’ve learnt 20 different swears in 15 languages had you been in that room I was watching the Sydney test. And the tension grew during the final session. My friend sitting next to me said, India playing with 3 wickets to protect, “Machhaan, if a wicket falls now, it will be very exciting!” I could’ve handled one wicket falling, but three was too large an amplification of the jinx. The Perth test was wonderful! Ishant’s my favourite bowler. He, like me is tall. I, like him, am a fast bowler. We both like unkempt long hair. It was a treat watching him bowl at Perth. Zipping the ball in and out. Owning Ponting. The Perth test was the only thing that made me voluntarily bunk a class in college. And the reward was Ishant’s brilliant 10 over spell ending with Ponting’s wicket. It was always coming. A power cut meant we couldn’t watch the end, and we only heard from our friends in other places when India wrapped up Australia’s irritating tail. Another anecdote from that series – Zak stopping a steaming Tait in his delivery stride to waste time and prevent another over at the end of day. That was simply the height of irritation for Tait.

And in less than a day’s time, India and Australia lock horns at Melbourne for the customary Boxing Day test to start the Border Gavaskar series. I have no clue what half the Australian team is. So many new names. My own lifestyle has changed drastically from 5-hours-a-day-class routine to 11-hours-a-day office routine. I have missed so much cricket in the last 4 months that I continue to have the problem in telling Umesh Yadav from Varun Aaron. India failed miserably in England, made up a bit against the West Indies at home. I learn that Australia have been average at best in their last two series ( SA, NZ). So, per me, what should’ve been a marquee series is just another series. A lot of name and fame and history and pride attached to it, but much of a fight in store. There might be some good tests, yes. But if we are calling the recent Australian tests are good ones, in which mediocre performances led to gripping results, that wouldn’t be good on an absolute scale in comparison to what we’ve had in previous tours.

Australian team has been getting a facelift every other series. Bowlers in both teams are getting injured on day-to-day basis. Ponting, Sachin, Dravid, Laxman are all having their last meet, I’d guess. One or more may be having their last series too. I’ve stayed away from most analysis, match-ups, talks, build-ups et all. I don’t want to expect anything now, for, reality is far from my expectations nowadays. This will like the Australian tours before 2003-04, when as a kid I’d sit with my dad on wintry mornings, and just watch the players in white, on the green fields, the red ball chasing away seagulls, and the sweet sound of bat on ball with the voice of Richie Benaud on the mic. I remember nothing from those tours, honestly.

As 26th of December creeps up, I’ve no idea if I’d be locked between priorities. NBA starts at the same time. A lot of switching between channels, or watching on different screens will or might happen, depending upon my laziness.

Here’s hoping this tour is better than what it seems to be.

– Bagrat

Last Chance Saloon

[by Sunny Mishra (@sehwagology) and Mohan Krishnamoorthy (@mohank)]

The promotions for the forthcoming full tour to Australia by India have been on in full force on TV in India. These promos are a source of some mirth and a lot of unintended comedy. We have had former cricket stars hyping the event as “Thunder Downunder”. Shane Watson has the unenviable task of lecturing us on meteorology and climate adadptation. Through these promos, we are reliably informed that, while it is winter in India it is summer in Australia. Saurav Ganguly talks up the series as the ‘battle of the chirp’, referring to the mental fortitude that is required for teams to tour Australia. Bollywood stars have got in on the act. The tour has been called the “Agneepath” (“Path of Fire”) Series. It helps that a movie by the same name is due for release shortly!

Product placement meets TV meets cricket.

An India v Australia match-up has not, in the past, required any additional marketing. Fans of both countries relish the contest. The Border-Gavaskar series had the potential to be billed as The Ashes of the new millennium until Australia lost its sheen. Nevertheless, since the 2001 epic in Kolkata, Boarder-Gavaskar Trophy clashes between Australia and India have marketed and sold themselves. And if interest in the BG Series flagged at any point in time, that Test in Sydney in 2008 ensured that Australia-India Tests would always retain an interest around the world of cricket.

The Border-Gavaskar Series was an opportunity for the most powerful team of our generation to meet the most powerful team of our generation. It presented an opportunity for the strongest team to meet the richest team; an opportunity for the most talkative team to meet a team that was finding its voice (at times, even a provocative rude voice). Every series saw drama, emotion, guts, glory, evictions, fights, breakdowns, fight-backs, back-stabbing, court-room trials and more. This was Survivor meets Big Brother meets TV meets cricket. Always! So, the additional chest-thumping marketing promos have been somewhat strange and mostly unnecessary.

However, India did lose to England in the 2011 English summer. Badly! Most Team India fans have worked hard to try and banish the horribly painful memory of that loss deep into the recesses of their minds. England in 2011? India went there to play? Play cricket? No way!

Subsequent to that series against England, India has made a few small but significant changes in personnel, although the approach has not been changed substantially. India beat England in an ODI series and then beat a hapless West Indies. But both of these series were at home. In India. In familiar conditions. So, it is hard for us to gauge the impact of the reorganization and the restructuring that was necessitated by the horrible English summer.

Moreover, the injuries that plagued Team India in the horrible summer tour of England persist. These have not vanished. India has had to identify, groom and prepare new resources. Quickly.

Meanwhile, Australia is caught in a funny place. We cannot be sure whether they are in consolidation phase or rebuilding phase or start-up phase! That is how unsure the Australian cricket team is looking these days. The cocky sheen has been replaced by an immature diffidence. Australia present an image of a child eager to — and, at times, able to — peddle fast on a bicycle when it can’t remember if it has taken its first baby steps in life. It looks like a team what needs a “re” prefix to describe the process of transformation that it is undergoing, without being sure if it is resurgent, rebuilding, regrowth, regeneration or revival.

After the terrible Ashes loss at home at the hands of England (again!), Australia went about the rebuild that was required in a typically Australian manner. The result was the Argus review. A public enquiry was conducted. All stakeholders were contacted and interviewed. A tome was written.

This series provides an opportunity to assess the status of the sweeping changes brought in by the Argus review. Australia has new selectors, a new coach, a new coaching system, a relatively new captain, and a new T20 league. All of these were intended to arrest the reversals over the last couple of summers. All of these will be under scrutiny. The challenge will be to show demonstrable improvements, and fast.

The first few attempts at regeneration have been very mixed. A good session is immediately followed by a bad session. In the past few months the team has demonstrated excellence and weakness, strength and vulnerability, solidity and inconsistency, toughness and fragility — all in equal measure.

All of this has turned the pre-series Australian Press ritual on its head.

What we normally have every (Australian) summer is the Australian press attacking the visiting opposition captain and key players in a remarkably organised pack-mentality. This ritual would often commence a few weeks before the first ball is bowled. The opposing team would be made to feel the heat and the pressure before the first toss. A siege-mentality would often grip visiting teams even before the actual cricket commences.

However, this time around, the Australian press is internally focused — almost entirely. Should Ricky Ponting retire? Should Usman Khawaja play? And if so, at what position? What happens to Phil Hughes now? Why are there so many injuries to key players like Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson, Shaun Marsh, Pat Cummins, Ryan Harris, et al?

These are some of the questions that have to be asked. And key press outlets in Australia have started this postmortem. The questions and barbs from the Australian media are being directed at the hosts this summer. There are self-doubts. These need addressing much more urgently than the potential gaps and vulnerabilities of the opposition camp. The Australian press is internally focused.

So, this series does provide some interesting story-lines. Some these will be distractions. Others will surely affect preparations.

For India’s senior soldiers, this is the “Final Frontier”. A win in Australia will check off another item on the bucket list of the “Triumphant Trinity”! (Ok, we were struggling here after the Fantastic Five became the Fabulous Four!). The Trinity has come close to a victory in Australia in the past. But the team lacked the killer punch; that finishing touch.

Sachin Tendulkar will be eager to get the 100th 100 completed. [Editorial Comment: Under normal circumstances, we may have said “Tendulkar needs to get that monkey off his back.” However, that would be a tad insensitive for an India tour of Australia! So the Editor culled that cliche out of this piece!] If Tendulkar does not get to his 100th century early on in the tour, this distraction will become as unbearable in the Australian press as it has already become in the Indian press. That distraction is one that the team does not need.

There is a risk of the series becoming a Ricky Ponting farewell tour — that is, of course, if the retirement does not happen before the tour commences. The 2003/04 series became a distraction for the home team as Steve Waugh’s retirement took center-stage in Australia. A Ricky Ponting farewell tour would be a needless distraction on a side lane when the team is struggling to cope with driving the bus within the confines of the lane markings.

Both captains will have to manage these diversions expertly.

One could say that Australia’s overseas assignments in Sri Lanka and South Africa have exceeded the expectations of a team that is in ‘re-build mode’. However, Australia will look at key moments in both these series and will want to ask questions. Being bowled out for 47 at Cape Town was a stunning low-point. At home they have been stymied by a plucky New Zealand side. The Kiwis used the conditions better at Hobart after being outplayed at The Gabba in Brisbane.

The loss at Hobart to New Zealand just prior to the “Agneepath Series” will hurt Australia. Going into the last day, one could not imagine Australia losing. Yes, New Zealand (and in particular, Doug Bracewell) bowled brilliantly. However, the bowling was hardly menacing. What was scary — from an Australian perspective — was the tentativeness and mental fragility that was on display. Apart from Warner and Lyon, briefly, all the other batsmen poked prodded and perished. This slide to ridiculousness was started by Ricky Ponting. Until the Ponting dismissal, one could not imagine an Australia loss. Ponting spent 51 minutes out in the middle. 51 minutes of extreme self-doubt. 51 minutes that defined Australia’s loss. 51 minutes of agony for any Australian fan. 51 minutes of pain.

So much so that the words in the poser: “Ponting will depart? Yeah? When?” perhaps need to be urgently rearranged to: “Yeah! When will Ponting depart?”

Another major concern for Australia is the litany of injuries. While Watson is expected to recover in time for Boxing Day, the return of young gun Patrick Cummins is unknown at this stage. Shaun Marsh should return to his spot at 3. The fitness status of Ryan Harris is unknown.

While the return of Watson and Marsh is welcome news, they will be short on (recent) match practice. The Big Bash League is the only cricket available for Watson and Marsh to secure match practice; and a hit in a T20 game is hardly the ideal preparation for Test cricket.

And while on this topic… Who thought of having a domestic T20 competition in the middle of a first class season, and while the home Test-series is on? Even the BCCI wouldn’t have come up with this pearl of extremely bad programming. The BCCI office bearers would have had to be on a terrible cocktail of hallucination-inducing drugs and vodka to have come up with such a silly concept!

The scheduling is so terrible that even if Patrick Cummins’s injury heals prior to the Adelaide Test — commencing 24 January 2012 — he would have to make an entry into Test cricket without any first class cricket under his belt.

As a Team India fan, I have seen many ridiculous attempts at non-management by the BCCI. But this piece of ridiculousness is something that would make even the BCCI officials reject with extreme and violent disgust.

India’s preparations have hardly been ideal either. An injury cloud hangs over Zaheer Khan. He has played two first-class games for Mumbai in the domestic Ranji Trophy competition. The comeback signs are good. But, will he last the tour? For India to have a successful tour, his form and his bowling-leadership will be crucial. One is never sure when Ishant Sharma will break down. For some time now, his body appears as though it is being held together by band-aid. Sreesanth is injured. Praveen Kumar is injured. Varun Aaron is injured. Harbhajan Singh is injured. Munaf Patel is injured. Ashish Nehra is not injured, but is not in selection contention. Who knows why? This means that the Indian bowling sports a new, young (and somewhat untested) look about it. Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Abhimanyu Mithun and Vinay Kumar form the pace attack while R. Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha form the spin strength.

While the rest of the team was playing against West Indies in an ODI series, a lead party of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Ishant Sharma reached Melbourne prior to full squad assembling in Canberra for the two practice games.

Practice games? Yeah right!

India is scheduled to play an Australia Chairman’s XI for a pair of 2-day games. Typically this side is a clutch of rising domestic stars led by a seasoned veteran. However, since the Big Bash League will have commenced on 16 December, it will be difficult for Cricket Australia to provide a competitive side to play against India. So, will it be adequate match practice for the visiting India Team? We do not think so.

The senior Indian players value structured practice sessions more than practice games. While there is plenty of time for that, what is lacking is net bowlers. CA is under no obligation to provide them net bowlers until when the Tests commence. So there is a scheduling mess here too — once again, caused by a senseless T20 competition that carves up the domestic Shield season in half. India will, therefore, need to ensure that it takes an additional pace bowler on the trip. Either that or India needs to make do with Abhimanyu Mithun and Vinay Kumar bowling ball after ball to the batsmen in the nets!

The lack of net bowlers is not a new problem that Indian teams have faced in Australia. This issue has surfaced on past tours to Australia too. Net bowlers have often been unavailable and practice facilities have often been “off limits”. Throw downs from the trainer are hardly going to prepare any batsmen — however experienced — for the probing examinations and searing pace of Peter Siddle and James Pattinson.

So, there you have it. It is a strange series that has more doubts than Agnee (fire). And if the teams have a path towards a certain future, this is unknown either. Yet, what we do know is that this has been billed as the Agneepath Series. It represents a battle between a team that is trying hard to rebuild and a team that has to ensure that a rebuild is unnecessary.

An Australian team that is in transition presents India with her best opportunity yet of securing a series victory in Australia. India has challenged Australia’s dominance in the glorious decade that Australia has had. India twice ended Australia’s record-winning sequences. It is now an opportunity to achieve what South Africa and England have both recently achieved — a win in Australia.

For India’s greatest generation of cricketers this is the last chance saloon.

— Sunny (@sehwagology) and Mohan (@mohank)

The tipping point…

After Team India won the World Cup, I was waiting for the “real” cricket season to commence before I re-commenced blogging! Senior players took a break from the game through lung infections and shoulder niggles. I could point to a digit that was unnaturally, yet temporarily, bent beyond the allowed 15 degrees! So, I took a break from blogging.

More seriously though…

Team India had ticked the “won the World Cup again” box. Everything else after that was mere preparation for the tipping point in what I have termed the Year of Consolidation for Team India.

And that year commences now.

The IPL came and went and ruined any celebration plans that either Team India or BCCI might have had subsequent to India’s World Cup victory! Some, like me, will say that this was a blessing in disguise! Thankfully, the chest-beats lasted just one week. Thanks to the onslaught of IPL-4, post-win celebrations were substantially and significantly minimal in India; this at a time when the English are still celebrating the Ashes victory some 6 months later!

After an ODI series against the Windies, Team India is now in the midst of a low-key Test series against West Indies. The last Test commences today.

But these ODIs and Test matches have been good preparation for the home run in the year of consolidation for Team India. We are at an interesting tipping point.

History will perhaps see 2001 as the year it all started for Team India. The team, through its inspirational leader, Saurav Ganguly, developed self-belief. The team knew that it had to win — and win overseas. It did. Slowly at first, like a child learning to walk. Winning overseas soon became a habit! Along the way, the team recorded a few good victories: Kolkata 2001 (v Australia), Leeds 2002 (v England), Adelaide 2003 (v Australia), Multan 2004 (v Pakistan), Sabina Park 2006 (v West Indies), Johannesburg 2006 (v South Africa), Perth 2008 (v Australia), Mohali 2008 (v Australia) and Mohali 2010 (v Australia), being some of the more memorable and important victories.

The doubters said Indians could not cope with the short ball. At the start of every series, we hear the same strategies being mapped: chin music. It is almost as if there are no other strategies to combat the strong Indian batting line-up! When India toured Australia in 2003 and we heard of “chin music” for the first time, a friend’s 10-year old said, “Let them talk about chin music, we can talk about Sa-chin music”. Today, every team is still focuses on chin music. Get over it, already!

Other doubters said that India could not win overseas. India has. Consistently.

Many other doubters said that India did not have the bench strength to overcome the departure of the backbone of the team: Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble, Ganguly. Today, the last two have departed. Through a mixture of chance, design and the incredible longevity of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman, India appears to be managing the transition.

These doubts are being answered. Slowly. Today, the team has bench strength that is the envy of the world. Unlike Australia, who lost her best players inside a year, India’s retirements have been managed well so far.

Australia assumed that her tough local competition would continue to routinely throw up talent that is good enough to take on the world. Australia did not blood her future torch-bearers and replacements in a phased manner. Australia waited for the legends to retire and was then found out. Through a combination of good fortune and design, India has taken an alternative route. Today, Anil Kumble and Saurav Ganguly have departed. But their loss is not yet being felt in a manner that is acutely hurtful. Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman and other contemporary senior members are still there to ensure that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water.

Now, we have reached an important point in the journey. Team India has had an exciting 10-year journey up until now. The team now stands on the cusp of a watershed moment. The team has self-belief now. It has the talent. It has the personnel. Through injury management and rest management, the team has ensured that even after the feverish and intense IPL, the team is fit and able to take on a strong England in England in Tests. Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag and Sreesanth were rested to ensure that the team has fresh legs available to take on a significant challenge.

And that really is the key to building bench-strength. Young players need to be provided opportunities to face the heat in tough/alien conditions.

That has happened. While Abhinav Mukund, Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli and Abhimanyu Mithun have not yet set the world alight with their performances, they will have benefited hugely from this outing in West Indies.

Rahul Dravid said recently that the conditions the team encountered in the West Indies have been the toughest he has experienced in a long time. Of the batsmen, only Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Suresh Raina (to a lesser extent) have emerged with their reputations enhanced.

But we cannot be arrogant like the Australians were when they were preparing for their future. In my view, much like the cricket that the team played at that time, Australia went about her preparation for her senior players’ eventual departure in an arrogant manner. Australia used and discarded players like Matthew Elliot, Brad Hodge, Jason Krejza, Stuart McGill, Chris Rogers, et al. These players were put through a revolving door and spun in and out of the team. It was all good while the team was successful. The theory was that the Sheffeld Shield was so strong that it would always throw up the right player when the right moment came along. This was a principle built on a foundation of arrogance. Even if we think that the Ranji Trophy is good at identifying and testing talent in tough conditions (and let us admit, it is not!) India cannot afford to take on the attitudes that Australia adopted.

We cannot adopt a use-once-and-discard policy. If players like Abhinav Mukund, M. Vijay, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Abhimanyu Mithun, et al, are players that we identify for a strong future, we need to be patient with their failures in order that we reap the benefits of their potential future success.

Team India, as I said before, is at a tipping point. Winning, which has now become possible, must become a habit. The ingredients for this phase change are self-belief, talent-nurturing and ruthlessness on the field.

The availability of talent must be a given in this journey. This needs to be nurtured. And this necessarily means that we — the fans — must learn to be patient. As I keep saying, if you want to see a collection of sacks, visit a mill or a godown! If we cannot learn to be patient when the team is winning, we have Buckley’s chance in Hell of being patient when we start to lose! Talent-nurturing cannot turn to talent-nutering!

Finally, the team must learn to win clutch situations.

The journey in this, the year of consolidation, commences with India meeting England in England and Australia in Australia. Yes! India did beat England the last time she visited that country. But she did not play like a champion team would. India did not press for a win at The Oval. India did not have that ruthless edge that Steve Waugh’s Australia had. India did not overcome a clutch situation. Indeed, India avoided the clutch situation totally!

And India is yet to win a series in Australia.

So, a decade after Team India discovered self-belief, it is time for a phase-change; it is time to endure and cut through an important tipping point…

— Mohan

MS Dhoni: An Assured Level-5 Leader…

This post first appeared in Clearcricket. The idea of a piece on MS Dhoni was initiated by Subash Jayaraman, founder and contributor to Clearcricket (@thecricketcouch on Twitter).

*****

I remember the day very very clearly.

It was the 8th of November 2008. A Saturday. It was the third day of the final Test match of the series (at Nagpur) between India and Australia. I had watched the most gripping session of Test cricket in my Melbourne home. Having commenced the day on 189 for 2 off just 49 overs (at 3.85 runs per over), chasing India’s first innings total of 441 all out, Australia had ended the previous day on an aggressive high. The first few balls of that first session of play on day-3 set the scene for that session, and that day.

My jaw hit the floor. “Was this Team India I was seeing?”, I asked myself.

I did not move from my place on the couch in that session — it produced just 42 runs from 25 overs at a run-rate of 1.68 runs per over! Dull cricket? Yet, I remember that session so vividly.

So what made it a gripping session?

Through the morning session India captain MS Dhoni set a 8-1 field with 8 fielders on the off-side and a lone leg-side fielder at square-leg. The bowlers who had been slapped around the previous evening, curbed their attacking lines and bowled a disciplined line to Mike Hussey and Simon Katich the two Australian left-handers. At the time this was thought of as a “defensive” tactic. The Australians were shackled. Their attacking shots were curbed. And they did not quite know how to combat India’s strategy — it took them a while to figure out that there was, indeed, a strategy! An Indian team did not just “rock up”. They were playing “thinking cricket”. The Australians were like rabbits caught in the headlights. In the process, Australia had lost a wicket too; Simon Katich lost his composure and got out — he had been out-foxed.

Rather than remove his foot from the pedal, in the post-lunch session, Dhoni continued his strategy in a ruthless and clinical manner. For Clarke he set a 6-3 field but still bowled a “defensive line”. In that post-lunch session, Australia scored 49 runs in 29 overs and had lost 3 wickets.

Many commentators — including Ian Chappell and Alan Border — attribute the loss in this Nagpur Test match to Ricky Ponting’s strange captaincy in the India second innings, when he had Michael Hussey and Cameron White bowling in tandem in a bid to catch up on Australia’s bad over-rate! However, I strongly believe that it was those opening sessions of Day-3 that led to Australia losing that Test Match. India acquired an Australia-like attitude, caught the match by the scruff of its neck, and did not let go. It called for mean-mindedness; an Australia-like bloody-mindedness. It called for a surrender of ego and pride. It called for discipline.

MS Dhoni’s tactics were rubbished by Ian Chappel, who asked for a rule-change to curb defensive and “boring cricket”.

For me, that was “exciting and gripping cricket” and not “boring cricket”. I had watched every single ball. There was drama and emotion. There was a battle; a battle of nerves; a battle for survival; a battle for supremacy; a battle to ascertain who would blink first. They remain the most gripping sessions of Test cricket I have seen in the last two years! Both sessions were “attacking sessions” in my view.

Dhoni had a clear strategy. He had a firm plan in his mind. He appeared to have communicated his plan very clearly to his personnel and got them to buy into his vision. His players responded to his plan, even though it meant that they had to swallow their ego and pride. The plan could backfire badly if it failed. Dhoni had to ensure that it was executed to perfection. Whether Dhoni had a plan-B or not, we never know. But his plan-A worked to perfection. And once he saw that it was working, he did not relent. He had placed his foot on the jugular and kept it pressed there. He had done to the Australians what they did to so many teams in the previous 15 years!

This was Test match cricket at its very best.

A few years back, in 2001, in that series, Sourav Ganguly had asked left-arm spinner, Nilesh Kulkarni, to bowl a negative line outside leg-stump from one end (especially in the second innings) while he attacked the Australians with Harbhajan Singh at the opposite end, in a must-win match at Chennai.

This was similar. Only better!

*****

MS Dhoni seems to have an astute, canny, discerning and incisive sense of his place in Indian cricket history. He comes across as an extremely perspicacious individual. Perhaps it is because of his small-town upbringing. Perhaps it is because a sense of sagacious, earthy and incisive unpretentiousness is ingrained in him due to his roots and upbringing.

That Test match in Nagpur witnessed two other moments that are enduring, stirring and indelible in my memory.

Towards the end of the Nagpur Test match, MS Dhoni handed over the captaincy reins to a man who had started India’s march towards the top of the tree at the start of the decade. Sourav Ganguly marshaled the troops and rang in the bowling changes as India marched towards a Test and series victory in that 2008 series. It was a wonderful and honest gesture of extreme appreciation and perhaps even respect by Dhoni towards a man who had been nudged towards retirement. Ganguly was playing in his last Test Match. The match report reads, “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.”

If that was emotionally stirring and if that was a signal of a man who was totally self-assured, what followed at the post-match ceremony tugged at the heart-strings even more. Dhoni called Anil Kumble to the victory dais to accept the Boarder-Gavaskar trophy. After all, it was during the series that Anil Kumble had retired.

Dhoni had scripted the strongest and most compelling farewell gestures to Ganguly and Kumble. This wasn’t, in my view, false humility. This wasn’t, in my view the act of a man devaluing his own accomplishments for the sake of receiving applause, accolade or adulation from others. His humility in these actions were real. He expected neither praise nor favors. These were, I believe, anchored in a strong and calm sense of assuredness.

And so, the baton had passed so wonderfully during that exciting Test match at Nagpur. India had commenced the decade with a strong statement against the Australians in 2001. In 2008, the baton passed to a man who would take the team from being just good to perhaps being great.

*****

I have long held the view that Sourav Ganguly was the first leader of men in Indian cricket. He had a vision for the Indian cricket team. He developed short-term and longer-term goals for the team. He wanted India to be competitive in world cricket; not just good at ‘home’. He believed passionately in this vision and committed to it with fervor. He had a road map to get him to the goals along the way. This included a professional coaching setup and an army of support staff. He was able to argue his case for adequate resources and quickly established himself as the leader of the team. He was able to rise above regional politics and demonstrated his will and commitment through his actions. He demonstrated that he was unbiased. He was quick in identifying talent and supported players through (sometimes multiple) failures. What he built was a systematic meritocracy where players would go to many lengths to give their all for him and for the team cause.

Of course, he did build his team at a time when Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman and Saourav Ganguly himself formed the backbone of an evolving good team. There were still questions on how they would be “replaced” to affect a transition from short-term good to long-term great!

Meanwhile, all of Ganguly’s good work was somewhat undone in his latter years through a dip in his own personal form, which coincided with the arrival of Greg Chappell — right man at the wrong time and at a very, very wrong place.

Indian cricket, which had started the decade with much promise and hope, was suddenly hopeless again. Through Anil Kumble, some balance was restored.

It was in this context that MS Dhoni took over the captaincy of the T20 and ODI teams and finally the Test team.

The road from good to great had not yet been traversed. The plan for this road was yet to be developed. What was urgently required was assured leadership, a vision and an organisational setup.

*****

As a player, Dhoni had transformed from being a flamboyant thumper to being an ungainly, yet effective artiste. His wicket-keeping was steady, if not brilliant. It was as a batsman, though, that he made his mark.

Initially, he was type-cast as an ODI player. After announcing himself with a 123-ball 148 against Pakistan, he made his big announcement with a massive 183 against Sri Lanka. Pundits wrote him off as a failure in Tests even before he had started. But then he made a terrific century in a high-scoring drawn-match in Faisalabad against Pakistan. He then made a fighting knock against England at Lords’ to save a Test match. Suddenly, he was a Test match player too.

From there on, a new and re-invented Dhoni played with maturity and calmness. It seemed as though he was comfortable in the team. He became a player who was able to play in many gears. He sometimes curbed his natural instincts to become a grafter, but young-India identified with the buccaneering marauder in him. They wanted him to play his trademark helicopter shot every match, every over, every ball.

That shot itself became symbolic of the rural rustic fighting for his space in a complex modern milieu, fully armed with a sackful of attitude, a satellite TV and many mobile phones! Dhoni represented the man he wanted to be. They wanted Dhoni to be the pillager that would plunder and raid runs from the opposition. They saw in Dhoni the big-city boldness and brashness that they aspired to.

But he was equally at home in the bright lights. He had the flamboyance, the long hair and the party life-style of a city lad. He even spoke English with the panache and confidence of a city lad! When his “Well of course” opener to any question became a trademark, he was assured enough to realize it and use it to mock himself! Today, he uses “Wellofcourse” in self-deprecation and smiles through it, knowing that many out there are having a guffaw. He blended into the city and the city men wanted to be like him.

Here was a common man from rural India who led a massive team with an earthy and grounded set of pragmatic sensibilities. Yet, he was a shining and suave diplomat under bright lights on the world stage. He had become a hero to both rural India and urban India.

Slowly, India accepted him as a very clever cricketer who could sum up the situation and play the way the game needed him to play. They enjoyed his barbs and exhortations from behind the stumps. They loved it when he asked Amit Mishra to bowl “udhar se” (round the wicket) in the Mohali Test against the Australians in 2008 to Michael Clarke. Clarke was out off that last ball of the day, leaving the Australians in disarray! They loved it when he said to Sreesanth to move in the field and when the speedster didn’t pay attention, he said, “Your girlfriend is not there… just move a bit” (or words to that effect) in a Test match. They loved it when he announced to the world and also exhorted his team to put in extra effort because Badrinath’s wife had just had a baby in Chennai!

So, slowly, one could see his steady and assured ascent to a leadership role. It is true that he seemed to posses that special Midas Touch that leaders crave for. Perhaps he had that auto loan calculator luck. Perhaps he made his luck. I never saw him as an accidental tourist. His was, in my view, a calculated assault at the top job in the Team India. In Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan, he had his ‘seniors’ in the team. He first became ‘one of them’ and then surged ahead as a perceived leader. It helped that while Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh had occasional lapses in ‘form’ and/or focus, Dhoni kept improving as a player and a potential leader.

When the time came, it was almost natural that he would be anointed leader of the ODI team and the T20 team. The victories came… He led India to a famous victory in ICC’s inaugural T20 World Championships. It came at a desperate and desolate time in the post-Chappell and post-Dravid months and a few months after India had been knocked out of the 2007 ICC World Cup!

It was an important time and an important victory for Team India.

That T20 victory gave birth to the IPL — admittedly, some fans may not agree that this was a desirous outcome. However, in a year that was a disaster from most other perspectives, the rise of Dhoni as a leader in the T20 world cup was an unmistakable positive. He was the future. He was the alternative. Even though Yuvraj Singh had smashed six 6s off a hapless Stuart Broad over and despite all the machismo surrounding that, Dhoni emerged tall as the leader of a young-bold India.

From then, his ascent to the top of the summit was strong, assured, dignified and steady. He was marked as an under study to Anil Kumble, the statesman. When the time was right, the reins were handed over.

Today, Dhoni is the leader of three India teams: Test, ODI and T20.

Over the last many months, I have had many debates with friends — fans of Indian cricket — who maintained that MS Dhoni, the captain of Team India, has been extremely lucky as captain.

Initially, I would have been quite happy to agree with them. Not lately. Not now.

He is, to me a Level-5 Leader who works hard at identifying where he wants to be and works harder at getting there!

*****

Jim Collins, in his article, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve”, [The Best Of HBR, HBR July-August, 2005, p.136-146] studies many successful companies. Collins concludes that perhaps the most important component of the transition from “good-to-great” is what he termed “Level 5 Leadership“. [I have extracted the concise summary below from here]

  • Level 1 is a Highly Capable Individual who “makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits.”
  • Level 2 is a Contributing Team Member who “contributes individual capabilities to the achievement of group objectives and works effectively with others in a group setting.”
  • Level 3 is the Competent Manager who “organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives.”
  • Level 4 is an Effective Leader who “catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards.”
  • Level 5 is the Self-assured Executive Leader who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and strong professional will.”

In his study, Jim Collins found that every one of his “good-to-great” companies had Level-5 leaders in the critical transition phase. Interestingly, none of the comparison companies did!

To me, though, a Level-5 leader is one that has many paradoxes embodied in the one person. They can be timid and ferocious, hesitant and fearlessly-adventurous, modest and pompous, diffident and audacious. More importantly, they might demonstrate an ability to focus on the small things while demonstrating a fierce, unwavering and uncompromising commitment to big goals, large vision and high standards.

Dhoni has demonstrated that he is highly capable. He has a strong work ethic and makes stunning and compelling contributions to the team. He contributes as an individual and sets an example for everyone else in the team to follow. They do. He ensures that he has the people and the resources and backs them. He backed Yuvraj Singh through all his troubles. He sometimes backs players a bit too much, but that is his method of catalyzing commitment. He is a big vision guy for whom the smaller details are important too.

The way MS Dhoni has gone about his task of leading this team is, in my view, a living example of an evolving Level-5 Leader. Even during the World Cup 2011 journey, he was at times shy-audacious, modest-brash, hesitant-bold. He was honest enough to admit his mistakes — and that effectively shut up the pack of loud jackals that were baying for his blood when they were not singing paeans of acclamation! By the end of the tournament, when the cup was won, there was no doubt that it was his team and he had done it his way.

He made decisions and made it clear that these were his decisions. After experimenting with several team-balance-options, he was certain that he wanted 3 pace bowlers for his team. He stuck to that format. He admitted that he experimented with various options along the way. He demonstrated honesty, when there was no need to do so. He demonstrated that he wasn’t quite sure of how to do it although it was quite clear what he wanted. In the end, he demonstrated immense personal courage and personal responsibility by coming up the batting order in the final match, at a time when the spinners were on. He didn’t place his gun on someone else’s shoulder and fire. He demonstrated extreme personal courage in the line of fire. It was a bold decision. It could have backfired like the 8-1 field. But he was determined to leave his stamp on the win. And if you doubted that, see the look in his eyes as he hits those winning runs, followed by that bat twirl.

He was very clear that he stood on broad and impressive shoulders when he thanked Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble, for building the solid platform on which he stands today (although I would have liked it more if he had added Laxman’s name to make it a quintet rather than a quartet, but that is only a minor quibble).

Today Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly have already acknowledged Dhoni’s exemplary leadership. In Ian Chappell’s view Dhoni is amongst the great modern captains.

*****

The World-Cup victory did not actually mean much to me! At the risk of being stoned to death by unforgiving Team India fans, let me state again that it would not have mattered to me if India had lost in the quarters or the semis or indeed, the finals.

For me, it was a small — albeit important — step in a much more important journey. The road ahead for this team is hard and there are significant challenges as Dhoni takes this team from good to great. I am much more interested in seeing how this wonderful leader is going to take Indian cricket along that important journey. For, unlike Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, other outstanding leaders of excellent cricket teams in the recent past, Dhoni leads a team of committed players rather than a set of some alarmingly stunning players who could win a match on their own, if the situation demanded it!

In that sense, he is cut from the cloth that Imran Khan and Alan Border were made of. And that excites me tremendously. He seems to posses the dogged and unwavering occidental determination of Alan Border that allows Dhoni to focus so intensely on “methodology, standards and process” while retaining the oriental mystique of Imran Khan, which allows him to focus on the “absolute value of and need for individual expression”. This is a heady mix.

And that is why I have hope. I think back to that day when I watched two gripping sessions of Test cricket when an Indian captain was calm, mean-minded, inventive and fiercely determined. For that was the day my admiration for MS Dhoni commenced.

I think back to that 8-1 field that started the journey of fascination that I undertook with him. I also look at everything he has achieved in the 2 and a half years since that day. I then say to myself, “With Dhoni around as a Level-5 leader, there is much hope for this Team India fan.”

– Mohan (@mohank on Twitter)

One match to go…

A week ago I wrote that there were more ‘positives’ emanating from India’s loss to South Africa in the Cricket World Cup 2011. One of these ‘positives’ related to India’s possible QF opponent. If India had finished top of Group-B, her opponent would have been Pakistan (according to my prediction then). I had attempted a prediction of the results of the remaining games and hence, a prediction of the QF line up too.

All of these were correct calls, I believe, apart from my prediction of last nights’ game between Pakistan and Australia. I should have listened to the heart and not my mind when I made that call. You never know with Pakistan. I should have stuck with the heart and predicted in favor of the mercurial unpredictability of Pakistan.

I did just that several weeks back when I had primed Pakistan and South Africa as the eventual finalists of WC2011. That early, risky and flame-worthy prediction is partially vindicated at the half-way stage of the World Cup because Pakistan and South Africa have topped their respective groups.

So why the change of heart/mind from Pakistan to Australia in last week’s result predictions?

The change of heart/mind was mainly because of Michael Hussey’s presence in the Australian team. Hussey lends stability to a middle order that is struggling with a weak Ricky Ponting an unsure Michael Clarke, a ‘lost’ Cameron White and an over-rated Steve Smith. Michael Hussey, who entered the squad as a result of Doug Bollinger’s departure, offered stability and sanity where there appeared to be neither.

That was the only reason I had changed my original prediction from Pakistan to Australia. However, even Hussey wasn’t able to prevent a Pakistan win in last night’s game.

I do believe that this Australian team needs a lot of re-work to be resurgent in world cricket. Change is necessary. And that change is right at the top. Ponting must morph himself or he must go.

Australia’s woes run deep at the moment. They could still win the World Cup from here. However, despite the proud and significant 34-match run of World Cup victories — interestingly, sandwiched by two losses to Pakistan in 1999 and 2011 — the chinks in Australia’s armory are worse than Ponting’s scowl might reveal. The scowl has now deepened into a semi-permanent fixture on his face.

Ponting is not just going through a rough patch. It is now a horrible patch. He is a proud man who protects his significant impact on the game with the fierceness of a terrier under attack. The now dreadful series of Ashes losses look terrible on his CV. He would like to redress that imbalance by visiting England again. And for that he must win the World Cup. He must know that only a World Cup win will protect his place in the Australian team. I doubt he will play under another captain — that is just not the Australian way.

Moreover, there was a time when Ponting appeared to be catching up on Sachin Tendulkar’s career aggregate, average and number of centuries — somewhat meaningless first-order measures of a batsman’s impact on the game. My sense is that Ponting worries a lot about things like that too. Over the last 18 months Sachin Tendulkar has hit a surreal patch of sublime resurgence. He has put daylight between himself and Ponting in these stats tables. I think that that daylight and the Ashes losses are weighing heavily on the mind of the Australian captain. He is just not playing like he can (or indeed, has).

A few months back, Ponting alluded to Sachin Tendulkar’s sublime form and indicated that he would draw inspiration from that resurgence. I personally think he has put too much pressure on himself. He is playing with less authority and composure these days than ever before. He reminds me of the unsure Ponting that suffered in India in 1998. And that lack of confidence reflects on his team.

Meanwhile, India has a somewhat important match coming up in a few hours’ time. I say “somewhat important” because the result doesn’t really matter as far as I am concerned. If India wins she will play Australia in the quarter finals (QF). If India loses, she will play Sri Lanka in the QF. Although I would have preferred India to meet New Zealand in the QF, she must either beat Sri Lanka or Australia in Ahmedabad to progress to the semi-final.

Either of these QF opponents will do. Both Sri Lanka and Australia are terrific teams — I say that, despite Australia’s batting woes. Sri Lanka suffers from the same woes, in my view. Apart from Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, there is nothing much in the Sri Lankan batting. So as a result of todays’ match against West Indies, India will face either a strong bowling attack (Australia) or a slightly stronger bowling attack (Sri Lanka). In either scenario, India’s batsmen will have to do the job of scoring a large number of runs and put the opposition under pressure.

In today’s game, India needs to sort out her team balance and commit to it regardless of the result.

There are some doubts over Sehwag’s fitness. I cannot see how Ashwin can be left out. India has a 15-member team in which two players rule themselves out due to “confidence” problems. One player — Sreesanth — does not appear to have the team captain’s confidence and another player — Piyush Chawla — who, by his own captain’s admission, does not have self-confidence. So that automatically makes this a 13-member team with two players fighting to be drinks’ carriers!

Therefore, given Munaf Patel’s reasonable performance, through a process of elimination, the only choices that need to be made are which ones of (a) Suresh Raina or Yusuf Pathan, (b) R. Ashwin or Ashish Nehra. It appears that the current choice is for Suresh Raina and R. Ashwin. Interestingly, both play for Chennai Super Kings! Call it luck or the whatdoycallit-red-dot-on-forehead syndrome.

– Mohan (@mohank on Twitter)