Brave new India

S. SUBRAMANIUM

The advent of newcomers meant there was pressure on the Indian seniors to perform. If some complacency had crept in, it had to be shrugged away fast. Dravid and Chappell kept the seniors on their toes, writes S. DINAKAR.

A shift in the attitude of the Indian team augurs well for the future. The Men in Blue are now flexible in mind and tactics. And they can hurt.

It was a year when the Indians moved from the seventh to the fourth spot, but a bigger gain was in the change in their approach. They were now making things happen, not waiting for events to unfold.

India had a forgettable year till Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid joined forces. The new coach-captain combine brought about a transformation that goes beyond making runs and taking wickets.

"It's about helping each other, caring for each other, making sacrifices on and off the field," said Dravid. "It is the squad rather than the XI that plays," pointed out Chappell.

This also meant the era of the superstars was over. Now, in Chappell's words, "it was a squad that thought like a team."

The Indian team that swamped Sri Lanka 6-1 and roared back to hold South Africa 2-2 bristled with commitment and camaraderie. Both sides arrived in India as World No. 2. Yet, India's year-end performances were not as much about numbers as spirit. This was a side where the seniors and newcomers blended into a healthy, well-knit unit.

India was finally putting into place a process that addressed a critical area — building bench strength. In the past, the team's growth had been stunted since the selectors and the team-management displayed a certain unwillingness to try out new faces.

Now, the cricketers were not just provided an opportunity, but given different roles. And they happened to be young players.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni blasted his way into the nation's cricketing consciousness with the highest ODI score by a wicket-keeper batsman — a blistering unbeaten 183 at Jaipur that shut out the Sri Lankans — after walking in at No. 3.

Irfan Pathan was used brilliantly by the think-tank and his aggressive effort at No. 3 that unsettled the Lankan attack in Nagpur, set the ball rolling for India.

Young pacemen S. Sreesanth and Rudra Pratap Singh received a look-in and they impressed in spells. Left-armer R. P. Singh, in particular, bowled with both purpose and zest.

The advent of newcomers meant there was pressure on the seniors to perform. If some complacency had crept in, it had to be shrugged away fast. Dravid and Chappell kept the seniors on their toes.

India, by trying out various options, was rightly eyeing the bigger picture — World Cup 2007. Picking the right players was crucial if the side was to make a strong bid for the ultimate prize in ODI cricket.

This was also a year of major rule changes in ODIs, with the introduction of the Power Play overs and the Super Substitute.

It did not take long for teams to discover that the Super Sub rule favoured the side fielding first, for it could then have an extra batsman while pursuing. India saw both sides of the coin. In the Hyderabad ODI against South Africa, where Dravid lost the toss, the Indians, inserted, suffered a collapse and had to bring in an extra batsman in Gautam Gambhir, losing in the process a bowler in Murali Kartik while defending .

When the toss favoured the side, then the Indians, on the chase, were able to carry out an important switch in the batting order, that saw Gambhir replacing the out of form Virender Sehwag at the top of the order. Gambhir sizzled as opener and Sehwag, at No. 4, re-discovered his touch.

The manner in which the Power Play overs were utilised by the captains was predictable with most doing away with them within the first 20 overs. Is making these restrictions batsmen specific, as suggested by Chappell, an answer?

The year 2005 began badly for the Indians with the side going down 2-4 to the Pakistanis at home. That was a series where the Indians were down on morale and confidence. And it reflected in the performance.

Then the side travelled to Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe where it succumbed in tournament finals to the Lankans and the Kiwis. The pieces were just not fitting together.

Chappell and Dravid managed to turn the corner when the home season got underway. All of a sudden, the team sparkled with ideas and innovations. When a cricketer succeeds in a new role, his confidence soars. And this Indian team is growing in self-belief.

If the Indian sides of the past were predictable, Dravid's side could adapt when the contest changed stripes. Strategically, India challenged the opposition. The fact that the players were `interchangeable' meant the adversary was forced to change plans.

Fielding was a major factor in the Indian surge during the last phase of the year and here youngsters like Suresh Raina have been a huge factor.

Yuvraj Singh, Mohammed Kaif, and Raina were electric in the circle. And someone like Harbhajan was brilliant in the outfield.

The role of the support staff has been important and the fielding drills have been elaborate and comprehensive. The Indians have not just been swooping on the ball, but knocking down stumps with increasing regularity. The sharp Indian fielding lent a cutting edge to the bowling.

Sachin Tendulkar returned to competitive action after a six-month tennis elbow lay-off with a splash against Lanka, became the most capped ODI cricketer when he surpassed Wasim Akram's 356 matches, but suffered a slump in form when the year neared conclusion. While Sehwag's displays were streaked with inconsistency, Dravid continued to be solid and reliable; he has evolved into a fine `finisher' in the ODIs, batting with intelligence, flair and substance. Yuvraj Singh was impressive with three ODI hundreds in 2005, including one on a seaming pitch in Hyderabad against South Africa's probing pace attack. The left-hander's footwork and shot selection have improved.

Pathan, definite all-rounder material, swung the new ball to provide inroads early on; on most occasions they proved decisive. A rejuvenated Ajit Agarkar, with a higher bowling arm, was precise in his length and direction while off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, emerging from a career crisis, bowled with control and guile.

The omission of Sourav Ganguly from the Indian side evoked extreme reactions. The aggressive left-hander with over 10,000 ODI runs was a key element of the Indian line-up for most part. If he never returns to the one-day arena, it will mark a sad end to a glorious career.

Australia continued to hold on to the top slot, but is being increasingly challenged. England forced it to share the NatWest Trophy in the Old Blighty, and before that Bangladesh inflicted on the Men in Yellow the biggest upset of the year.

Australia crushed the Rest of the World, with Adam Gilchrist firing. The emergence of Shane Watson as a match-turning all-rounder was a definite gain for Australia, although the cricketer, sadly, suffered an injury.

More recently, the Kiwis successfully chased a world record 332 in Christchurch. In the previous game at Wellington, only a sensational final over by new paceman Mick Lewis enabled the Aussies to squeeze home by two runs in a last gasp finish. Brett Lee fired them in with great hostility and Mike Hussey has grabbed one of the middle-order slots with authoritative batting, but Australia needs to be careful. The others are catching up.

South Africa made major headway, outplaying the Englishmen at home and conquering the Caribbeans away. The Graeme Smith-led side's unbeaten run of 20 ODIs was finally halted by India in Bangalore.

This is a dynamic side, with depth, all-round talent, big-hitting ability, and incisive bowling. Justin Kemp burst on to the scene as an awesome striker of the ball who can clear the ground with ridiculous ease.

Pakistan regrouped under Inzamam-ul-Haq's strong captaincy and coach Bob Woolmer's tactical skills. Inzamam led by example when he guided Pakistan to a heart-stopping win over India at Ahmedabad; Inzamam was an ocean of serenity in a pressure situation with the team losing wickets and the overs running out. The mercurial Shahid Afridi hit the bowlers out of the park with ridiculous ease.

Like India, Pakistan has displayed flexibility of thought and wicket-keeper batsman Kamran Akmal has powered the innings up the order. Swing bowler Rana Naved has moved the ball at surprising speeds, and pace spearhead Shoaib Akhtar made a welcome return to the side after threatening to self-destruct. Pakistan beat India in India, and England at home. Both were creditable achievements.

England has hugely influential cricketers in Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, but is not the same threat in the ODIs as in Test cricket. The present English pace attack — the side's source of strength — is more suited to the longer format. There is too much burden on Flintoff and England needs more all-round depth.

The Kiwis are still an efficient unit, but are over dependent on Shane Bond's firepower and fitness. The Caribbeans whip up flashes of brilliance, but are still unable to string it all together. And it was a rude awakening for Sri Lanka in India.

At the end of the series, Sanath Jayasuriya found himself out of the side. Time waits for no one — not even for this famous Lankan Lion that roared in the arenas of the world.