A glorious TRANSITION

YUVRAJ SINGH... a change in the positioning of his lower body and a technical adjustment to his stance have seen the man from Punjab step up to the next level.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The recent success of the Indian one-day squad has been predicated on the young guns treating adversity with a calm bordering on insouciance, and YUVRAJ SINGH making the transition from inconsistent incandescence to sustained magnificence, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

This story begins in Sri Lanka. In the August of 2005, Team India was going through a bit of an identity crisis. It had been successful, and this success was built on the doctrines of the old school: grizzled, grey-heads had kept things calm and pulled their weight, while fresh-eyed upstarts had done things to suggest great things lay in store. But, these great things had never quite happened; instead the team's form had dipped and the staid air was growing oppressive.

A new coach had just arrived and a new captain was taking charge even as the road to the 2007 World Cup was being laid. Theories were flying thick and fast as was talk of "processes", "the mental side", and the ever popular "lateral thinking".

Trenchant critics had already put it down to hogwash and looked on in amusement as the players went through a series of drills — controlling a ball on the end of a string with the top hand, setting off for runs at a whistle-screech while batting at the nets, and facing different coloured balls during throw-downs — in the prelude to the IndianOil Cup tri-series.

But, a young core was beginning to form, a core radically different from its predecessor. Only, no one noticed it then. When then 18-year-old left-hander Suresh Raina — from the youth hostels of Allahabad — propped an adjacent pad in front to a Murali doosra, the first delivery he faced in international cricket, he got a few commiserating, resigned shrugs. When wicketkeeper M. S. Dhoni moved the wrong way and failed to lay a mitt on a Kumble delivery, pundits pointed out — and rightly so — that swashbuckling batting be darned, his glove-work needed polish.

And when Yuvraj Singh top-edged a sweep to trigger the collapse that cost India the final, there was talk of how the team continued to choke during chases, and how the more things changed in Indian cricket, the more they remained the same.

Less than a year later, the Men in Blue have strung together eight successive wins and equalled a record set in 1985 and again at the 2003 World Cup, have wrested the record for most consecutive successful chases (14) from Clive Lloyd's West Indies, and have looked genuine world-beaters.

M. S. DHONI ... among the best readers of the game.-R. V. MOORTHY

The old skin of diffidence has been sloughed off; the one underneath promises much. Crucially, this success has been predicated on the young guns treating adversity with a calm bordering on insouciance, and Yuvraj Singh — one-time young gun, now a `senior' at 24 — making the transition from inconsistent incandescence to sustained magnificence.

That Yuvraj was a natural was obvious — his long levers remarkably seemed to find the ball at the instant ripe for striking. But, he often splayed his feet and pushed away from his body. Indian coach Greg Chappell's insistence on the positioning of his lower body ("make sure the energy keeps moving forward") and a technical adjustment to his stance have seen the man from Punjab step up to the next level.

"They have matured enormously over the short time I have spent with them," Chappell told Sportstar of the young brigade comprising Dhoni, Pathan and Raina. "The only way to get better is to train better. It's something we have done with the slow throw-downs into the rough with Ian (Frazer). As a batsman, you can't just throw your hands at the ball, you have to move your feet. With that comes confidence that if you can do it in the rough you can do it anywhere. And with confidence comes a strong mental state.

"Yuvi (Yuvraj), I think, was the first one to show immediate improvement with his century in Sri Lanka (in a league match of the IndianOil Cup), and the other guys started noticing it.

But I think it was Irfan (Pathan) who was the next one to turn it around and get the others interested because Yuvi was always seen as a talented batsman, but to see Irfan do it got them to probably realise (that they could too).

"Yuvi, Irfan, Suresh (Raina) and Dhoni have shown so many positives — the way they move their feet, and get into good positions to manipulate the ball. In terms of bowling lengths, there is this danger zone, which is too short to stretch forward to yet too full to play back to. When you aren't using your feet properly this zone gets quite big. But Yuvi and Suresh and Irfan and Dhoni have been making this zone smaller. Suresh for instance has been using the crease better."

Striking as these technical changes have been (observe the left-handed Pathan thread a customised off-side field repeatedly if not convinced), the accompanying ability of the tyros to handle pressure has stood out. No phase of an ODI tests the batting side quite like the chase. It calls upon various skills: the ability to read the play, read the conditions, and adapt; an elementary grasp of arithmetic; and the capability to pace yourself and hold your nerve. Seven of those 15 pursuits have been of targets over 250: 279, 251, 299, 262, 265, 289, 287. "The biggest difference — and it's not something that's happened by accident — is the chasing record," said Chappell of a team whose previous avatar was one of notoriously jittery chasers. "It's been about taking the focus away from the outcome and concentrating on the processes."

But, aren't those the thoughts that ferment in experienced minds? Can a youngster in this era of instant gratification do that? "Sachin said to me the other day — and he said it a lot more eloquently than I am telling you — that experience is useful up to a point. It's a bit of a two-edged sword because with bad experiences you tend to understand what can go wrong. The youngsters have had less damaging experiences, they've only had reasonably positive experiences so far."

The fourth ODI against Sri Lanka in Pune last year showed portents. M. S. Dhoni, fresh off a 145-ball 183 the previous match to chase down 299, put his head down and ran the hard yards.

He has since done that often enough to suggest he's among the best readers of a game. But, giving him company then was Raina, batting for the first time that series, and hitting through the line with alacrity. From 180 for six, the pair took India to 262 to win the series 4-0.

"I love the challenge, I just play my natural game, and I am very confident," Raina told Sportstar. "The seniors have been helping me a lot. It's a mind game. I have worked hard in the nets. I just focus on one ball at a time, and make my plans accordingly. Say we have to get 90 in 15 overs, I make sure we stick close to the score and get it in 14."

Indian captain Rahul Dravid has spoken of how he confronted the team with different challenges and how the players his side needed were those who looked at them as opportunities and embraced them. Consequently, a side of interchangeable and skilful parts has emerged — a side capable of competing in the Caribbean in 2007 and perhaps even bettering what it did in 2003.

Dravid himself has batted at positions between 2 and 6; Dhoni has bustled out at 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7; Yuvraj has batted between 3 and 7; Pathan has stepped out at 3, 7, and 8; Raina has turned it on from 6 and 8; Mohammad Kaif, who has had a recent horror run but had kick-started the sequence of chases with a superb century against New Zealand in Harare at 3, has also batted lower.

"It's been good for the older players as well; a lot of pressure has been taken off them," said Chappell. "We couldn't have convinced Rahul to open a few months back because of the worries in the middle order. But now — now he has seen the youngsters are not just physically talented but also mentally capable."