Think of the 2011 World Cup, and the first thing that comes to your mind is Dhoni “finishing it in style” with a six (you are not a cricket fan if you didn’t hear the last line in Ravi Shastri’s voice).
There is nothing more memorable in sport than the winning moment. But more often than not, in a battle between two equally matched opponents, the one who plays the superior tactical game on the day goes home with the spoils of victory.
Dhoni’s tactical checkmate on the night was promoting himself to bat above Yuvraj Singh, something he hadn’t done in the entire tournament. Dhoni blindsided his opponents with a move they weren’t expecting. The Art of War tells you, “All warfare is based on deception.”
India’s best tactical game in that World Cup was the quarter final against defending champions Australia.
Shane Watson and Brad Haddin had given Australia solid starts in almost every game in the tournament. Both the Australian openers liked pace on the ball. To counter their threat, Dhoni picked Ravichandran Ashwin for his first game of the competition and made him bowl the first over of the match.
A rookie of eight games at the international level before this, Ashwin repaid the faith by keeping Watson quiet initially and then dismissing him for 25.
Opening the bowling with Ashwin was a playbook Dhoni had already tried at the Indian Premier League (IPL), and he knew Ashwin had the skills to deliver.
Dhoni didn’t overexpose the move at the international level before the World Cup knockout game, so there was still an element of surprise in it. As a leader, you need to show faith in the right people at the right time to get the job done.
Lacking the faith
Speaking of faith, the current Indian selection committee and team management seem to lack it.
The selection committee led by MSK Prasad deserves kudos for being proactive about finding young talent and providing it opportunities. But the endless audition it has conducted for World Cup spots without sticking to any one particular option leaves Team India with more questions than it had a year ago, when this selection exercise started.
Part of the reason behind this overeagerness in selection is the unprecedented talent pool that India has at its disposal.
We have several quality players to contend for every spot in the team. But having several options doesn’t change how an individual needs to be groomed for a role. One or two games in a series are not enough for a player to prove his mettle.
The international stage is not a finishing school for young players — you come to this level when the wise men have already asserted your talent and skills, it’s then just a question of you having the confidence and mental strength to deliver at the highest level.
That confidence takes a beating when you know every outing can make or break your career.
Going with your hunch
The Indian team management has done a cricketing rendition of “Thank you, Next” at the number four position for the last year or so, but opinions are still divided over who is their best option.
They have tried Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, Shreyas Iyer, Ambati Rayudu, Vijay Shankar and a few others, but there is no clear winner yet. Perhaps if captain Virat Kohli and coach Shastri had shown complete faith in any one of these talented players, and given them a longer run of 20-25 games, the issue would have been resolved long back.
Those who miss out are often unfortunate, not incompetent. India was once blessed with an abundant supply of quality spin bowling options.
Stalwarts like Padmakar Shivalkar and Rajinder Goel, who took 589 and 750 First-Class wickets, respectively, never got a chance to wear the India cap since their careers coincided with that of the great Bishen Singh Bedi. When the BCCI awarded Shivalkar and Goel for their contribution to Indian cricket, Bedi was the happiest man. He conceded he never considered himself a better spinner than either one of them. “I think it was a matter of getting a break. I was fortunate to get one,” Bedi said.
Team India’s current selection strategy runs the risk of not trying any option properly in an attempt to try every possible option.
In the current environment, M.S. Dhoni, who scored an aggregate of 22 runs in his first four games, may have struggled to go out and play with the kind of freedom he did against Pakistan in his fifth game to score a career-defining 148 at Visakhapatnam.
As a captain, you should be prepared to back your instincts in a tournament like the World Cup.
Every tactic, every selection doesn’t have to be put through an endless trial. A leader can tell a player to go out there and prove it to the team that he belongs here, or he can put a hand on their shoulder and say “the team knows you belong here, now go out there and show everyone else”. The latter is what a youngster would like to hear from their captain.
World Cup history is full of captains who successfully backed a player based on a hunch. Romesh Kaluwitharana opened the batting in six games before the 1996 World Cup but was a tactical success in Sri Lanka’s tournament win. Mark Greatbatch of New Zealand had never opened the batting before the 1992 World Cup, but Martin Crowe handpicked him to do the job.
If you know your moves, then dazzle your opponent with them instead of giving them a chance to prepare.
The season of auditions is officially over as India doesn’t play any more games before the World Cup.
Conceding a high-profile ODI series at home against Australia, one they should have won, will go down as collateral damage in the exercise of team-building.
The selectors should now resist the temptation of making IPL performances a basis for selection. The final squad should be picked based on how the contenders fared in the chances they got, and how well they fit into a role or a plan for the team.
All said and done, India still start favourites along with host England for cricket’s marquee tournament.
Rajesh Tiwary tweets @cricBC and is known for his blend of cricket insights and irreverent humour. A self-confessed cricket geek, he prides himself in remembering every frame of grainy Television cricket coverage of the ’90s.