Saturday, April 9, 2011

THE ARCHITECTS OF THE WIN

I have been planning this blog for a week now, but just did not get the time to do it because of a distraction in the form of ICC's stupid decision to shut the Associates / Affiliates out of the 2015 World Cup. While that is a ridiculous decision, I will not be focusing any more on that. Instead, I will be talking in brief about the 5 men who, in my opinion, formed the backbone of India's win at the World Cup 2011.

I have listed these men in the order of importance, in my opinion:

1. Zaheer Khan
2. Yuvraj Singh
3. Gautam Gambhir
4. Sachin Tendulkar
5. Mahendra Singh Dhoni

Here are a few thoughts about each one of these men:

ZAHEER KHAN

In my view, Zaheer Khan is the reason India stood a chance of winning the World Cup, and actually won it! The joint-leading wicket-taker at 21 wickets in the World Cup with Pakistani skipper Shahid Afridi, Zak did not have a single 4- or 5-wicket haul in the World Cup. What does this tell you about him? He was consistent.

Indeed, amongst the bowlers who took 15 or more wickets in the World Cup, only Zaheer Khan and Tim Southee took at least 1 wicket in each match they played. To analyse further, Zak took at least 2 wickets in 8 of the 9 matches he played in - the only one in which he got only 1 wicket was the only match that India lost - against South Africa (though I do feel the urge to mention here that that wicket was of his bunny Graeme Smith)!

He held India's bowling together, and got wickets almost whenever the match seemed to be getting away from India's grip. His slower knuckle ball was almost impossible to read and was very effective against the left-handed batsmen. And not to forget, his reverse swing was phenomenal - that pinpoint reverse swinging yorker to nail Andrew Strauss LBW allowed India to come back and earn a tie in that match, which seemed to have completely gone out of hand.

An average of 18.76 and an economy rate of 4.83, accompanied by 4 maidens (3 of which came in his first spell of the World Cup Finals) tell a tale of a champion bowler. Given that he achieved all this on tracks that first assisted batsmen, then spinners and then pacers, those figures just glow brighter! He may have been a little expensive in the three knock out matches, but the value of that brilliant start in the Finals against the most prolific opening partnership of the World Cup just cannot be understated. A fast bowler, whose new-ball spell figures in a World Cup Finals read 5 overs - 3 maidens - 6 runs - 1 wicket, is someone special!

India could have won this World Cup with one batsman less, one spinner less, maybe even one man in the XI less... but never with one Zaheer Khan less!

YUVRAJ SINGH

Man of the Tournament! This cricketer was struggling for form, fitness and possibly even inspiration for the better part of 2010. He lost his place in the Indian squad in both forms of the game, fell prey to injuries, and was criticised by almost everyone, myself included. But despite this criticism, I am happy to say that I never lost faith in his match-winning abilities. I still have in record on my Google Buzz the reply I had written to a friend who had asked me why I though Yuvraj Singh was so important to India's World Cup cause long before the World Cup had begun (I think it was even before the South Africa tour, not sure)!

On pure potential alone, he is arguably amongst India's finest match-winners in the limited overs version of the game. And this was with the bat alone! But the way his bowling came along in this World Cup eased India's bowling worries in a HUGE manner. Out of his 15 wickets, the first 7 came against the non-Test playing Ireland and Netherlands, but the next 8 came against all former World Champions - 2 each against West Indies (Chennai), Australia (Ahmedabad), Pakistan (Mohali) and Sri Lanka (Mumbai).

Batting-wise, he started the tournament cautiously and acknowledged as such (when he won the Man of the Match against Ireland) that he was still not finding the fluency to be able to score at run-a-ball. But it came good and at its best over the past 2 years in a do-or-die knock out run chase in the Quarter Finals against Australia, where he guided India to a win in a tricky run chase.

To me, the most heartening aspect of his knock there was the way he guided Suresh Raina in that unbroken partnership, which started when the hopes had again started dwindling. Raina was looking nervous when he entered... he was sledged a bit by Shaun Tait... and attacked with bouncers at ferocious pace. And unnoticed by a lot of people, Yuvraj Singh kept on talking to Suresh Rania whenever he looked edgy, and it was almost a kind-of reminder to the Chennai Test of 2008 against England, where Tendulkar had played the elder-brother role to Yuvraj Singh in a difficult, yet successful, run chase (given that he had been 'sledged out' in the first innings).

This was clearly Yuvraj 2.0, a newer and more mature version, who gathered 4 Man of the Match trophies, and broke down when it dawned on him that India had won the World Cup. When Harbhajan Singh cried in the finals, it did not make a lot of difference to me. But when I saw Yuvraj Singh sobbing uncontrollably into Sachin Tendulkar's left shoulder, I became teary-eyed myself. This fellow has etched his name in history, and deservedly so!

GAUTAM GAMBHIR

Ian Chappell was of the opinion that Gambhir did not fit into the Indian XI. He was made to eat humble pie when Gambhir ended up being just 3 runs short of what could arguably have been a World Cup Finals Man-of-the-Match winning performance.

But before talking about his wonderful innings in the Finals, one must not forget the very vital contribution he made to India's successful chase against Australia in the Quarter Finals at Ahmedabad. A fine knock of 50 runs before his recurrent problem of running between the wickets came back to haunt him, and had him run out on the third attempt! His partnership with Virat Kohli in that match, though short-lived, was one of the highlights of that chase for me, simply because of the ease with which these two youngsters milked the Australian bowling around!

And now the last knock of 97. Just take in the situation - World Cup Finals, 0 for 1, opposition completely charged up with momentum, Sehwag out, a difficult chase, immense pressure, a quality fast bowler to face first up - that was no place for the weak-hearted!

For a major part of 2010, Gambhir too, like Yuvraj, was suffering from some injuries and a little bit of dip in form. Voices calling for his ouster from the team had grown from faint whispers to buzzing murmurs. A couple hundreds against the visiting Kiwis helped get his form back, and a couple of solid knocks in Tests in South Africa in extremely difficult conditions against the best bowling attack in the world, must have helped build a lot of confidence.

Four half-centuries and the second-highest run-scorer for India in a successful World Cup campaign, with a BIG role in the victory in World Cup finals was a deserving result. At Wankhede, the standout part of his innings was the way he resisted his urge to go inside out over the cover region to the three Sri Lankan off-spinners after he had been let off once early in the innings to that stroke. He saw that Sangakkara had set a very intelligent field for that very shot, with a straight-ish deep extra cover and a long off. That shot must have still been very tempting because of the three off-spinners in operation and the fact that it has been very productive for him in the past. But he resisted - he swept, he paddle-swept, he did a lot of things that he doesn't normally do (like dive in to make his ground on a tight second run) - but he stayed in there till the match was quite comfortably in India's reach!

One couldn't have asked for more from him at No. 3 for India. He consolidated and he attacked when least expected, both with great success. And though a few experts kept shaking their head in disapproval on his selection, he made sure that he had the last laugh!

SACHIN TENDULKAR

482 runs, second-highest run-scorer in the World Cup, highest for India, strike rate of 92, 2 centuries and 2 fifties, and the most sixes hit by an Indian in this World Cup (8) - all this just before turning 38 years of age. In his record-equaling 6th World Cup appearance, a winner's medal was what he deserved and what he achieved!

His centuries may be remembered for the wrong reasons of non-winning causes, but do not play down the mastery in their construction. In both those hundreds, Sachin Tendulkar decided to take the attack to the opponent's best bowler. At Bangalore, he blasted two consecutive sixes off Graeme Swann's first two balls of a new spell to send a signal to Strauss that his best bowler means nothing to him! At Nagpur, he pulled a Dale Steyn bouncer for a six to backward square leg to tell him that his pace and ferocity meant nothing and that he could be easily blunted! It is a pity, a real shame, that both these matches were not won by India, for these hundreds deserved to be called match-winning ones for their sheer quality.

In the Quarter Finals against Australia, his 53 might look a moderate score, but it was the second-highest in India's innings, bettered only by Yuvraj Singh's winning hit for 4 that moved him to 57*. He gave India a brisk start and held fort with Gambhir after Sehwag fell relatively early in that chase. His attack on Shaun Tait in his very first over sent his radar wayward, which eventually proved to be a pressure-releasing factor for India in a lot of crunch moments later in the match.

In the Semi Finals against Pakistan, his only Man-of-the-Match performance in this World Cup, he scored an error-strewn 85 aided by five lives. Irrespective of the manner of those runs, it was his innings and that of Suresh Raina's at the end that eventually proved to be the difference between the two sides. In the final analysis, Sachin Tendulkar and Misbah-ul-Haq had very similar strike rates, but the superiority with which Tendulkar paced his innings despite the obvious discomfort in picking Ajmal's spin proved to be a crucial factor at the end.

He may have failed in the Finals, with just 18 runs off 12 balls... but he did provide early indication as to which bowler will be the easiest to attack for India. And that glorious straight drive off Nuwan Kulasekara was one for the ages! This man will stop scoring consistently only on The Judgement Day!

MAHENDRA SINGH DHONI

A lot of times in the past, MS Dhoni has been praised by the 'experts' for even his smallest and most insignificant of moves. A lot of times in the past, I have just brushed these comments aside and as I always do, formed my own opinion with my perspective. But on the night of 2nd April 2011, it was all very different! On that night, Mahendra Singh Dhoni played a knock that will be fondly placed as one of the very best in limited overs cricket under ENORMOUS pressure in the annals of not only Indian cricket, but also the World Cup cricket.

Had he not promoted himself over Yuvraj Singh to play the trio of Sri Lankan off-spinners, I may not even have placed his name in this list. But that sharp bit of captaincy followed by a knock of immense maturity, devoid of a single careless shot, has gained MS Dhoni an entry into this and numerous other lists. The surreal clam with which he hoisted the winning six will be replayed over and over again in every household of the myriad communities in India, for nothing less than that kind of a shot would have been worthy of sealing India's historical win and Dhoni's name in a list of all-time great captains of the world!

In the euphoria of the win at Wankhede, it was very easy to forget Dhoni's contribution as a captain in the other knockout matches, especially the Quarter Finals against Australia at Ahmedabad. I have never seen Dhoni attack so much in the field in an ODI as he did against Australia on the 24th March 2011. Be it Ricky Ponting nearing his century or a rusty Cameron White, MS Dhoni was relentless in applying enormous pressure to their batsmen. An eventual score of 260 was in a big way, the result of some fine captaincy by Dhoni.

In the semi-finals too, against Pakistan, Dhoni did well to attack the batsmen in the middle overs. In this match, his attack was not focussed on taking wickets. Rather, he set his close fields very close, and his deep fields very deep, to ensure that the boundaries as well as singles are minimised. Since Pakistan is not reputed for athleticism, the chances of conceding a lot of twos was minimal. And the introduction of Harbhajan Singh to grab the wicket of Umar Akmal was a vindication of captain's gut feel!

An average World Cup with the bat, illuminated by an innings of abnormal calm and composure in the Finals, MS Dhoni has finally helped India get hold of the biggest prize that limited overs cricket has to offer - after 28 years of long and sometimes agonising wait!

10 comments:

Dean @ Cricket Betting Blog said...

I think you are spot on with Zaheer.

I thought that the Indian bowling struggled a bit during the group games, Zaheer seemed to be holding it together single handed at times.

If it wasn't for him, the bowling could well have crumbled.

A few more chipped in with performances come the semi-final and final, but I believe a lot of that was off the back of Zaheer's leading off the line.

Having a performaer like that in your side can only help the other bowlers.

Shridhar Jaju said...

"Having a performaer like that in your side can only help the other bowlers."

Absolutely, Dean! And the best example, if you ever needed one, would be to compare the Indian bowling attack in Centurion Test 2010 with that in Durban (Boxing Day) Test 2010.

The former Test, without Zaheer, India lost by an innings and something, able to pick just 4 of 20 South African wickets. Come Durban and come Zaheer, not only were the 20 wickets picked, but India also managed to win that match, before drawing the Test and the series at Cape Town in the New Year Test 2011, where again Zaheer-led Indian bowling attack took 20 wickets.

I shudder to think what will be the state of India's bowling once Zaheer's body gives up completely!

Golandaaz said...

Perhaps the most significant performance of the WC came from Suresh Raina in the QF.

Without that innings of 30 odd, we would have been knocked out.

So while I agree with the architects you have. Suresh Raina needs a special welcome

Leela said...

Great list!
But I too would include Raina. Not only did he bat well, but he added another dimension to India's fielding; saved quite a few runs too.

Shridhar Jaju said...

Gol and Leela,

Actually, I had pre-decided to go in for five names. That is why, due to his knock in the Finals, Dhoni took a huge leap to jump above Raina. But yes, if a sixth name has to be added (like Gol said, a special mention), it has to be Suresh Raina.

Raina made exactly the same number of runs as Pathan, but in half the opportunities and at an average 5 times of Pathan's. And the effect he had in the field cannot be measured here.

In the finals, Raina, together with Yuvraj and Kohli, seemed to have formed a sign for the batsmen - "DO NOT hit through here (Off side), it will be futile!" The batsmen did not listen, and these three guys jumped, dived, slided and ran around everywhere to make sure rendered those shots futile!

Govind Raj said...

Shridhar, great post. But I too agree with Gol and Leela that Raina deserves to be there, ahead of Gambhir.

He played only 2 innings and both were vital to the fortunes. I was a vociferous critic of Raina's 'short-comings'. But I must say, he was 'Electric'.

In spite of his knock in the final, Gambhir will not be in my list simply because his job was to hold fort and he time and again threw his wicket, like in the game against Pakistan. He has no business doing that. Agreed he did well in the final when the 2 big men failed. But my question is... If he was not doing that, what is his role in the team ?

Never underestimate Viru's role too. The catch in the slips of Tharanga. 175, dismantling of Umar Gul, a strike rate of 125 with over 300 runs is not a small matter.

And another humble pie I have to eat is Ashish Nehra's last 2 overs against Pakistan: 2-0-3-2

This in my opinion was the difference between 'Cup and the Slip' !

Siddharth said...

Well written article.

Even i feel that zaheer dint get the accolades he deserved. He was our unsung hero.

EB said...

Shridhar

Very well written article. For someone who I have known for so long, I am really impressed by your writing. Reading your blog after really really long. Apologies for that. But I would like to add from a completely non-technical perspective: Sachin is the reason why we won the Cup. He deserves much more than a 4th position (on your list), I feel.

tracerbullet007 said...

honorable mention to Gary Kirsten perhaps? He formed a formidable partnership with Dhoni to make this a team which could win from any position...

Shridhar Jaju said...

Govind, like I said in my previous comment, I had pre-decided to list just 5 names, and that is why Raina missed out. That does not take anything away from his performances. And I have written a small piece of my thoughts for him in the previous comment itself.

And secondly, the reason why I include Gambhir in my list is that I believe he has contributed his bit even before the finals. Batting-wise, only Dhoni was the one who came good only in the Finals.

In the game against Pak, it would be unfair to say that GG 'threw' his wicket away. He is India's best player against spin because of the way he uses his feet. He got out doing the same. SRT got out in the Finals trying to drive Malinga through the off. That does not make him a bad cover driver or that does not mean that he 'threw' his wicket away. They got out playing their natural games, and not a rash stroke.

Plus, like I said, GG's contribution in the chase against Australia was no less. It was overlooked only because it was sandwiched by an SRT start and a Yuvi finish. But in my opinion, it was still a very crucial knock.

In the finals too, his partnership with Kohli was the reason Dhoni could promote himself. Had the 3rd wicket fallen before 50, I am sure Yuvaj Singh would have been the one coming in.

The reason why Viru missed out in my list is because his performances in the Knockouts were below par. He went for a 'rash' stroke against Australia - he is not a natural puller, yet he went for it. Against Pak and against SL, he wasted a review each on his own. It did not matter in the end, but that is not what I expect from a senior player with experience of both '03 and '07 to do in crunch matches such as Knockouts.

Sid bro, without a doubt, Zak was the biggest reason for our glory. His performances inspired a lot out of others.

EB, thank you! From my heart, even I wanted SRT to win the Cup and now he as won it! But from a purely performance standpoint, I think 3rd / 4th / 5th are the places SRT would occupy in most lists.

@tracerbullet007, Gary Kirsten does not deserve just an honourable mention, he deserves an entire blog post for himself! I wrote one for him just before India's QF against Australia - here is the link.

SAVE OUR TIGER!