Overcoming the blues

FOR a team that had been in the throes of despondency in one-day cricket, the 6-1 scoreline in the recently concluded series against Sri Lanka represents a remarkable turnaround. In the four months preceding this tournament, India had lost two tri-series finals in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. In both tournaments India's spot in the final was assured because of weak third sides, but it performed unconvincingly against the major teams.

A spat between coach Greg Chappell and then captain Sourav Ganguly, played out in the media, mirrored the disarray in the squad. Experts contended that the side was on the slippery slope downward, having gone past its peak. In this context, a series at home, where India hadn't won in three-and-a-half years, against the second-ranked side was expected to further worsen matters.

But new captain Rahul Dravid and Chappell have fashioned a squad that executes their cricketing philosophy of fluidity. The return of the peerless Sachin Tendulkar helped bind the team, but to credit him with all the team's success is to do the team a disservice.

Success, as Dravid said after the seventh match in Baroda, is a consequence of many small things coming together. This team has been characterised by how every player has clicked into place — each a vibrant and distinct part of the whole. Flexibility and experimentation, however, will remain mere buzzwords if players haven't the ability to implement them. Chappell and Dravid threw down challenges in the series against Sri Lanka; new roles and responsibilities were offered and each time a youngster accepted.

For India, the evolution of wicketkeeper batsman M.S. Dhoni has been most heartening. He has improved his glove work considerably — his performance standing up to spin and J.P. Yadav's medium pace was competent.

Dhoni's batting captured a nation's imagination. Capable of both destroying an attack and tempering himself according to the demands of the situation, the man from Jharkhand encapsulates the New India. Dhoni should force his way into the Test side and remain for some time to come, the solution to India's wicket-keeping problems.

The signs of a renaissance are everywhere. Irfan Pathan, promoted up the batting order in the first game, responded with a fine 83. Eighteen-year-old Suresh Raina — thrust into a high-pressure situation in Pune where India finished off the series — showed maturity beyond his years.

Gautam Gambhir got just one opportunity when the great Tendulkar was rested; he smashed a century in Ahmedabad and held his place for the next match. Left-arm paceman R.P. Singh came up with a man-of-the-match performance in his second match of the series and finished the tournament with more wickets than most of Sri Lanka's frontline bowlers.

Nowhere, however, has the future looked as invigorating as the fielding. Young legs have torn down turf, safe hands have held catches, and the verve and ability of this team in the field has warmed the cockles of fans accustomed to laggard performances. The team management has built a core group, supplemented by youngsters who will gain experience and reach their prime by the time the 2007 World Cup comes around.

Sri Lanka was disappointing. India did not let the islanders play at their best, but they have problems of their own. The last survivors of the golden generation — Sanath Jayasuriya, Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan, and skipper Marvan Atapattu — are ageing. Jayasuriya's failure best encapsulates his side's wane. A tormentor in his peak, he looked woeful.

Such is the schedule of international cricket that even as India savoured its victory, South Africa — currently second best in the world — handed it a defeat.

In just one match, the Proteas showed why they are a different proposition to Sri Lanka and why they have an unbeaten run second only to Australia.

Their body language was positive and except in the final overs of the Indian innings, captain Graeme Smith exercised control. Too much, however, shouldn't be read into one loss. Luck with the toss and a little more discipline with the ball could have changed the result. Despite losing early wickets, India fought back to reach a competitive total — a sign that the `processes' are still in place — and took the match almost all the way.

South Africa will be a sterner test for the Men in Blue, a better standard to judge form and capability against. Whatever the result, this much is certain: wheels have been set in motion, wheels that will take some stopping.