MS Dhoni builds for the future by staying in the present
For years now, India's success in limited-overs cricket has been underpinned by a batting line-up that believed it could chase down any total. Yet, it has become clear that sustained success cannot be achieved by doing one of the three cricketing disciplines excellently at the cost of the other two.
When the entire team turns up to a practice session that has been declared optional by the coach, does it cease to be optional? The Indian team bus rolled into the Cardiff Wales Stadium with Swiss punctuality at 2pm on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, with all but one member present. The one person who did not get off the bus with his mates, Suresh Raina, had reached the ground an hour in advance, taking throwdowns from Trevor Penney, the fielding coach, in a one-on-one session. While Penney did an admirable job setting imaginary fields and gave his shoulder a thorough workout as Raina pinged the ball far and wide, his real job began once the entire group emerged.
A cursory examination of the pitch and the customary game of warm-up touch football kicked things off, but it was at the fielding session that India showed just how they have come so far in this tournament, winning three of three matches to set up a semifinal against Sri Lanka.
When the Indian squad for the Champions Trophy was announced there was some consternation in the media, and certainly in the minds of fans, seeing that the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh and Virender Sehwag were not on the plane to England and Wales. But, the results, and the manner in which they have been achieved, reaffirmed that Mahendra Singh Dhoni knew exactly what he was doing when he sacrificed experienced heads for young legs.
For years now, India's success in limited-overs cricket has been underpinned by a batting line-up that believed it could chase down any total. While this confidence still exists in a group that is coming together, it has become clear - and the coach, Duncan Fletcher might well have a role to play in this - that sustained success cannot be achieved by doing one of the three cricketing disciplines excellently at the cost of the other two.
The bowling unit is a work in progress. India's best fast bowlers are seldom all fit at the same time, and R Ashwin is going through a phase where he has to reinvent himself as batsmen look to merely play him out and thereby safeguard their wickets. With the batting largely taking care of itself, the bowling needing time to develop, the one thing India needed desperately was a fielding unit that could scrap with the best of them.
This eleven that India put on the park has at least six genuinely world class fielders in Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Dinesh Karthik, not counting Dhoni behind the stumps. These are men who can man a variety of different positions, have the instinct and anticipation to attack the half chances, are light on their feet and quick with a throw. Of those who are less naturally gifted in this department, Umesh Yadav is a born athlete, Bhuvneshwar Kumar is safe and sensible, leaving cause for complaint only with Ishant Sharma and Ashwin. While these two aren't the quickest of movers, they're as hard working as the next guy, and Ashwin has the advantage of being a safe catcher.
Having this kind of fielding unit has done two things for Dhoni. Firstly, India now give themselves an invisible advantage in each game, something that does not show up on the batting or bowling cards, with the runs they save. Secondly, when the group builds pressure as one, it acts as a wicket-taking option; and while every game may not yield a brilliant run out such as when Jadeja dived, stopped and flung in a flash to remove Robin Peterson or the one-handed Kohli effort that sunk Junaid Khan, it creates opportunities.
When it was suggested that Dhoni and the selectors were looking to build a team for the 2015 World Cup, it was accompanied by the usual sniggers and the odd conspiracy theory. While a lot can happen between now and 2015, the core of this Indian team - the youngest in this competition with an average age of 26 - is not going to age in a hurry. This means that the fielding was likely to get better, or stay the same, not deteriorate by the time India's title defence of the World Cup comes along.
"We have not been known for our fielding standards, but I think right now we are the best fielding side," said Dhoni with a straight face ahead of India's final league match in the Champions Trophy. For most of his captaincy career, Dhoni has insisted that the only way to survive on the treadmill that is Indian cricket is to live in the present. In intoxicating success and bloody defeat, Dhoni has retained his equanimity, always stressing on the need to leave the past where it is and his desire to not think about what the future may hold. Even in this tournament, Dhoni protected the bubble. "I've always said being in the present really helps because it really takes things off your mind that are not really in your control," said Dhoni before the match against the West Indies. "If you talk about what's happening right now, we are busy doing our practice session, we had a team activity yesterday, and we are quite busy doing all that stuff. Those are the things that are really in our control and will really help us improve our game. Being in the present really helps, and that's something I think most of the individuals need to do."
When it comes to building this Indian ODI team in general, and specifically the focus on fielding and fitness, it seems that Dhoni is building the future by staying in the present.