Winds of change are sweeping

S. DINAKAR

Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell share mutual respect and are on a similar wavelength.-PTI

INDIA is evolving into a dynamic side. It can surprise and sting. If predictability was its bane in the past, the side now bristles with innovations.

This, in a nutshell, has been the biggest gain for the home team during the Videocon ODI series. More than the series triumph over Sri Lanka, it is this fresh attitude that screams for attention.

The focus is on collective effort. Individuals do matter in a team sport, but only to the extent of taking the side forward. They have to fit in the game plan. Indeed, winds of change are sweeping Indian cricket. This stretches beyond winning and losing. It's about putting together a side for tomorrow — for the 2007 World Cup. While the immediate future has its own significance, great teams show foresight.

India is not a great team yet, but a process has been put in place. The rewards might not be too far away.

The Rahul Dravid-Greg Chappell combination is working. Sachin Tendulkar has roared with the willow, has contributed with his wealth of knowledge. Mahendra Singh Dhoni has showed his prowess. Guile and craft have adorned Harbhajan Singh's bowling. Irfan Pathan has been influential. Ajit Agarkar has bowled with zest. They all have made a statement.

Dravid has been more than a captain. He has emerged a leader of men. In a side undergoing a transitional phase, his presence has been inspirational.

There is so much that is right about the man and his methods. On the field, he is all commitment and character. Off it, he is all grace and charm. He is the skipper and a role model. And he brings with him great dignity to the top job.

To a man returning after a tough time — Harbhajan — Dravid was the compassionate skipper who put a caring arm around his gifted bowler. To Agarkar, a man haunted by fluctuations in form, the captain was the steadying influence. The Mumbaikar's confidence soared.

Dravid made runs and did so in style. His century at the Motera Stadium was a beautifully paced effort. Dravid has a rock-like quality in him, both in his persona and his cricket. His resilience sends a quiet message to his side — keep fighting hard.

The Karnataka man's captaincy has been impressive; whether ringing in the bowling changes, setting the fields or choosing the power play overs. He comprehends the nuances of the game too well be anything less.

Suresh Raina holds a lot of promise.-AP

Strategically, Dravid and Chappell have worked in tandem. They share mutual respect, are on a similar wavelength on the issues of works ethics.

Discipline and attitude are essential pre-requisites in the present set-up. Intensity during training session counts as much as runs or wickets in the arena. There is an unmistakable seriousness about the Indians during the practice. This is distinctly Chappell territory. The cricketers realise that any lack of effort on their part could land them in a career crisis.

The fielding levels have risen. Smart catches are being snaffled up with increasing regularity; direct hits are commonplace. The Men in Blue are enjoying their time on the field. And the running between the wickets has been exemplary. The players are quicker on the turn while stealing singles.

The think-tank has an open outlook. India sending out different batsmen at the No. 3 slot unsettled the Lankans. If the islanders had come out with a specific plan, they were now forced to think of an alternative. And Plan `B' did not always come off.

Irfan Pathan made most of the opportunity at Nagpur, batting with power and intelligence; India also had a right-left pair in the middle. In Jaipur, Dhoni was quite the dust storm that blew the opposition away. And the Lankans rubbed their eyes in disbelief.

If the pinch hitter proves destructive, the opposition captain faces serious problems... timing his power play overs. Sending a floater up in the order, if it works, also adds depth to the line-up — a specialist batsman will walk in a slot lower.

The lack of flexibility had hurt the Indian sides in the past. Now, India's tactics are hard to guess. On a seaming wicket, you could still have Rahul Dravid coming in at the fall of the first wicket to counter the conditions.

On flatter tracks, and in specific situations, the Indian ploy of disrupting the rhythm of the opposition is in perfect order. There is a place in cricket for shock and surprise value.

Years seemed to fall away as Tendulkar stroked the ball. His batting retains the vibrancy of youth. The tennis elbow did not appear to be bothering him... for the time being at least.

India also had the young Suresh Raina displaying composure in a pressure situation in Pune. The left-handed Rana collected his runs in an unruffled manner along with Dhoni just when the Lankans were tightening the noose.

Raina was solid without compromising on his attacking flair. He is someone with genuine ability.

The bowling was precise, as Chappell would like to put it. The team-management, with help from the support staff and video analysis, studied Sri Lankan batsmen ahead of the series. The results were heartening for the host.

The pacemen rightly bowled a fuller length around the off-stump and allowed the ball to swing. The Lankans are fine cutters and pullers of the ball. They were not provided the width.

Pathan bent the ball into the right-hander, generated lively pace on occasions — this indicated his mind was not bothered by injury concerns. His spell at Mohali was one of the decisive points of the series. As Dravid would say later, "We won the crunch moments in the series."

Agarkar moved the new ball consistently away from the right-hander and bowled full and straight at the lower order batsman; there was a hint of reverse swing for him. Crucially, he is getting his radar right these days, bowling with a straighter, upright wrist action.

Plenty of technical work has gone behind Harbhajan pivoting more on his hips. Resultantly, his left foot faces the batsmen at the point of delivery. With an action that is more side-on, there is less chance of him being hauled up for illegal action. The Sardar bowled with control and spun the ball.

Considering that international schedules are becoming increasingly hectic, Chappell is keen on developing a pool of pace bowlers. India needs to have replacements in hand to guard against breakdowns. S. Sreesanth has pace and there were times when he hustled the batsmen with well-directed short pitched deliveries and tested them with yorkers. He could blossom with experience. Left-armer Rudra Pratap Singh managed to extract unexpected bounce from the docile pitches. He is a strong lad with powerful shoulders. And he has possibilities.

There were opportunities for the youngsters after the series was decided. Someone like Gautam Gambhir grabbed the chance with a punishing hundred at the Motera Stadium.

Chappell is keen to assess the youngsters in match situations. The National Cricket Academy and the `A' Tours have definitely left the cricketers better prepared for the international arena. But then, their true worth will only be known through performances on the bigger stage. India needs to try out different combinations before arriving at the right one.

Chappell is already working on the up and coming players. He is a firm believer in batsmen seeking to score, dominate the bowling. He speaks about the value of a batsman making an initial movement forward without committing himself on to the front foot. This way he can transfer his weight to the back-foot if necessary. Otherwise, he has the advantage of having the momentum to move forward and strike the ball off the front foot. The emphasis is on positive cricket.

The Indians have utilised the super sub rule cleverly. This has also added batting depth to the side if Raina's example in Pune is any indication. The rule also provided the side a bowling option in Nagpur where left-armer Murali Kartik operated with drift, spin and deception. Meanwhile, Dhoni's thundering ways with the willow and his improving 'keeping have actually saved another place in the side. No wonder, India is appearing more balanced these days.

Yuvraj Singh, who had a lean patch, too found his touch. Virender Sehwag though did not click with the bat, but proved successful as a captain in Rajkot. Sehwag's batsmanship lacks the fluency of old; he needs to break through the shackles.

Chappell and Dravid are firm believers in mental strength, guiding a cricketer to greater glory.

Chappell has studied the human mind, comprehends sports psychology. For instance, adversity can be a wonderful motivating factor in itself. For those struggling for form, the coach and the captain can show the path.

The Indian side is certainly on the upward curve. The challenge before it will be to sustain the form... and to peak at the right time.