Dhoni at his dodging best

At the presentation ceremony as well as at the post-match press conference after India’s semi-final exit, skipper M. S. Dhoni was vague in his statements. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

M. S. Dhoni was asked about his future immediately after India’s exit. He refused to answer with any clarity. “Not sure. I’m 33, I’m still running, still fit. Next year is the T20 World Cup; it will be time to decide about 2019 or not,” he had said at the presentation ceremony.

At the post-match press conference, however, his answer was at best odd and at worst disrespectful. “A very interesting answer,” he said. “It’s up to you guys. The media should do nice research on it, take a few days, and my advice will be whatever you decide, write the complete opposite. That will be the fact. It’s up to you guys.”

It was not unusual that Dhoni was asked that question. He is 33 and has already retired from Test cricket. It is unlikely he will be around for the next World Cup. He may be satisfied, though, with what his team achieved in this edition. However embarrassing India’s defeat in the semifinals, its campaign cannot be judged to have been a failure.

India ran up against a mighty Australian team playing in home conditions. Throughout the World Cup, India had never been put under that sort of pressure. The tournament had begun with a defeat of Pakistan, where India had the advantage of having played in Australia for over two months. India batted first and posted a huge total, the pressure exerted by which did Pakistan in. That confidence fed into the win over South Africa, which was easily India’s best performance of the tournament. The template for those two wins was the same. After that, though, there was little doubt that India would top the group. Zimbabwe, Ireland and UAE were never likely to be serious opponents and although there were tense moments in the run chase against West Indies, there was nothing at stake. In the quarterfinal India met Bangladesh, which, for all its improvement, was never likely to be a serious challenger.

Against Pakistan and South Africa, India had enjoyed the luxury of hundreds from someone in the top three. That didn’t happen against West Indies and Zimbabwe but those cracks were papered over by the lower middle order. But when facing a world-class bowling attack like Australia’s and with a tall total to chase down, that proved a lot harder to do. With only six batsmen (including Dhoni) and the absence of a reliable all-rounder, India simply did not have the wherewithal to cope once the top three had failed. It is not a surprise that Dhoni has always been against the new ODI rules, which force him to field five bowlers.

There is rebuilding work to do for India. An all-rounder is the need of the hour. Ravindra Jadeja, who failed to make a serious contribution with the bat, cannot be relied on to score any runs. At the Champions Trophy, he had dry pitches to operate on, which helped his bowling. Here, his left-arm spin was never good enough to trouble world-class batsmen. It is true that he was recovering from a shoulder injury but that is no excuse; if he wasn’t able to operate at full pelt, he shouldn’t have played. At any rate, he seemed to have no trouble with his fielding and his throwing.

Yet, this World Cup had its positives. India’s fast bowlers, who had struggled for consistency throughout the Test series, showed accuracy and maturity (for the large part) and proved hard to face. They were expensive in the semifinals but the signs are good for India’s future.

Mohammed Shami was the spearhead of the attack, fast and intelligent and capable of swinging the ball both ways. Umesh Yadav was extremely fast and vastly improved from the Test series but he still needs to work on his consistency. Mohit Sharma was a surprise, hitting the early 140s, bowling with great control and bowling an array of slower balls and bouncers.

R. Ashwin was impeccable with his off-spin and was by a mile India’s best bowler in the final.

What must not be ignored is that India had not won a single game of cricket during the Test and ODI series in Australia.

It required a great amount of will and character for the team to rouse itself from that position and go on to do well in the World Cup. The team won seven matches in a row, bowling out all seven opponents. The only time it failed to dismiss the other side was in the semifinal.

“I felt everybody rose to the occasion — how the fast bowlers bowled throughout this tournament, how the spinners have done, learning from all their past experiences when we failed outside,” Dhoni said later.

“The Test series didn’t go our way, the triangular series didn’t go our way. It was important to have a good dressing room atmosphere, and all the members, including the support staff, they were just brilliant. I’m disappointed we couldn’t go into the finals, but only one team can win, and I felt they played better cricket on the day. We learnt a lot out of it. Hopefully, what the fast bowlers have learnt on this tour, they’ll keep in mind because we won’t be playing outside the sub-continent until next year. Hopefully they’ll have something, some storage space.”

He refused to get sentimental about losing the title India had won in style four years ago. “It’s something that doesn’t really belong to anyone,” Dhoni said. “We definitely took it from someone, so somebody took it from us. It’s as simple as that.”