A stunning transformation

THE transformation has been stunning. A team, which was savaged by the commentators and berated by the supporters after just one defeat, was now sought after by the same people.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

The men in blue had rediscovered their winning ways, thanks this time to a collective effort and not individual excellence. Harbhajan Singh, Rahul Dravid, Ashish Nehra, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif symbolise the Indian team spirit.-Pic. REUTERS

THE transformation has been stunning. A team, which was savaged by the commentators and berated by the supporters after just one defeat, was now sought after by the same people. It was so typical of the cricket culture in the sub-continent where people have not learnt to accept defeats as being a part of the game. After all, you cannot win every match.

The Indian team had made a shaky start to the World Cup. The win against Holland did not show the team in good light but then little thought was given to the fact that it was just the opening match. The defeat against Australia was enough to convince the millions of people back home that this Indian team was not the dream team they had put their faith on. The over-reaction to the defeat only helped the team.

The improvement in the squad was steady and reached its peak at the Supersport Park in Centurion when India effectively shut out the formidable Pakistan. It should rank as one of India's finest victories ever because it not only established the team as a firm favourite for the rest of the tournament but also gave the nation a wonderful gift. Meeting Pakistan on the field is much more than a game of cricket. Ask the soldiers how they rate an India-Pakistan match and how much they value a victory against the hostile neighbour.

The cricketers were under pressure no doubt but hats off to Sachin Tendulkar, who took the lead in inspiring the juniors, some of whom were meeting Pakistan for the first time. Zaheer Khan, Dinesh Mongia, Yuvraj Singh, Ashish Nehra and Mohammad Kaif were encouraged by the rest to just try and give their best. Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid made every effort to keep the team in a relaxed mood and once the game started skipper Sourav Ganguly took over and led splendidly.

The team had to work hard to attain its potential in the preliminary league. ''I think the key was our confidence. We combined very well in the matches against England and Pakistan. We started the tournament slowly and then the defeat just shook us. But at no point was the team demoralised. We were looking good by the time we met Pakistan and people just forgot that we were in a difficult pool,'' said Ganguly.

The gains of the group matches were Nehra and Kaif. Of course, Yuvraj played that glorious innings against Pakistan, but then his potential had been recognised and it was just a matter of the youngster striking form. Kaif had been struggling for some time but he had the backing of his skipper. He was actually being wasted down the order. Once he was handed the responsibility of batting at No. 4 he came good and it was an innings which would have done a world of good to his confidence.

Nehra's progress in the span of one match was quite pleasant. "I always knew his potential. We have rated Nehra as a wicket-taking bowler and everyone was happy for him after his spell against England. It was a crucial spell and came at the right time. In his case too it was a matter of striking rhythm. It was such a fantastic spell, one of the best I've ever seen. It put the team on the right course,'' said Ganguly.

The team knew its strength lay in the ability of the youngsters. The form of Virender Sehwag may have been disappointing by his standards, but then it was good that he did not change his attitude. He was told to remain aggressive and it worked to an extent against Pakistan. The trio of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar was stunned by the dazzling charge that Tendulkar orchestrated. The rest of the team joined in the charge and flattened Pakistan.

``What can I say of Sachin? He is such a champion and he batted like a champion that he is for the rest also to be motivated and follow his approach. It was such a thrill to watch our batsmen sort the Pakistani bowlers out. It was a good wicket and we were always confident of winning,'' remarked Ganguly, who was out first-ball to Waqar.

The group matches saw the Indians work out a plan and stick to it. The openers were assigned the simple job of giving the team a racy start. A score of 80-90 was seen as ideal with the emphasis on being positive. "The fear of losing your wicket and subsequently your place is what players often worry about, but we had made it clear that no one would be punished for following instructions,'' said Ganguly.

Against this background the most significant role was played by Rahul Dravid. "He's been doing a great job. His contributions have not been given their due by people who overlook the fact that he gives such solidity to the middle order. It's not always possible for both the batsmen to indulge in strokeplay and that's why we want Dravid to just hang in there. He has a wonderful quality of pacing the innings so professionally and I'm glad that his strong temperament helped him to control the situation in the middle. His knock against England was a very significant contribution,'' observed Ganguly.

There was no surprise in India finishing second in Pool `A'. On form it was expected to lose to Australia, which happens to be the best team in the world, whether it wins the Cup or not. Australia is a complete team and India learnt a few lessons from that defeat. The absence of Shane Warne and the omission of Steve Waugh has made little difference to the overall strength of Australia because it does not depend on individuals.

Even as they have tried hard, the Indians have not been able to shed their age-old habit of leaving the job to one individual. Once again Tendulkar has remained the source of motivation, but the difference this time has been the determination of the others to support him in this venture.

India's tremendous recovery, especially the authoritative victory against Pakistan, after the shattering loss to Australia, was the talking point among the cricketing fraternity in South Africa. The team was overnight transformed into the most favoured team to win the Cup. Most former players confirmed during studio discussions in various programmes that India had the best combination to win the Cup after Australia. Players like Clive Rice, Lee Irwine, Kepler Wessels and Andrew Hudson backed India to win the Cup. "I'm sure the Indians will have a strategic plan to counter the Aussies if they meet again in the tournament,'' said Hudson in one of the discussions.

One has backed the Indian team to win the Cup and it certainly was a pleasant feeling to know that the support to the team was now coming from various quarters, even as some of the former India players squirmed in the commentator's box. It was most embarrassing for them and a big loss of face for a couple of channels who had been gunning for the Indian team after its loss to Australia. The steady progress made by the team in the group matches established Ganguly and his men as strong contenders. The men in blue had rediscovered their winning ways, thanks this time to a collective effort and not individual excellence.