x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Champions Trophy: Pieces falling in place for new India

MS Dhoni's side has evolved into world-beaters again, writes Dileep Premachandran ahead of semi-final against Sri Lanka.

India's Ravindra Jadeja, second from right, celebrates the wicket of West Indies' Ramnaresh Sarwan who was caught by India's MS Dhoni for one run during their 2013 Champions Trophy match.
India's Ravindra Jadeja, second from right, celebrates the wicket of West Indies' Ramnaresh Sarwan who was caught by India's MS Dhoni for one run during their 2013 Champions Trophy match.

When India played a tri-series in Australia at the start of 2012, there was confusion over whether Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar remained the first-choice opening pair.

In 12 matches between them, the two made just 208 runs. Virat Kohli, Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni aside, the batting was an unmitigated disaster, and Sri Lanka edged out India for a place in the final.

Four years earlier, Tendulkar had scored a century and 91 in the two finals as India won the tri-series for the only time in three decades of travelling Down Under.

What happened in 2012 was just confirmation that an era had passed.

Though we did not know at the time, Tendulkar would play his final one-day international less than a month later, against Pakistan at the Asia Cup in Dhaka.

As the giants declined, there was no one to fill the breach. Rohit Sharma was dropped after just 79 runs from five innings at No 4, while Ajinkya Rahane, who had started his international career so promisingly in England the previous summer, did not even make it off the bench.

The bowling, too, was dismal, with none of the specialists averaging under 30 and only Ravichandran Ashwin conceding fewer than five an over.

Failure to make the final of the Asia Cup – Bangladesh went through on the basis of having won the group game between the two sides – accelerated the break-up of a side that had won the World Cup less than a year earlier.

Of the XI who did duty for India in the league phase of the Champions Trophy, only three – Dhoni, Kohli and Suresh Raina – had played the World Cup final.

The new-ball bowlers, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, were not even part of the squad, nor were Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit, who opened the batting.

With the exception of Tendulkar, who announced his ODI retirement in December, the other World Cup winners did not move on voluntarily.

They were mostly discarded during the course of a home season that saw an ODI series loss to Pakistan and a narrow win against England.

Some disgruntled players muttered darkly about Dhoni and personal vendettas.

But Dhoni has never had an agenda, not in that sense, anyway. If he prioritised anything, it was fielding.

The subtext of many a news conference was a lingering dissatisfaction over the way the older legs were holding the team back.

They may have scored big runs and taken key wickets, but when Dhoni surveyed the field in search of some energy and vigour, there was seldom any.

The team he has now is very much his own. There was no mistaking the pride in his voice as he spoke of India being the best fielding side in the competition. The inner cordon has let little pass, and the match against South Africa showed that even throws from the deep were now dangerous.

With the ball, it is an unremarkable unit that fulfils Dhoni's wish to keep things relatively tight.

On a good day, Yadav's pace and Kumar's swing will get him wickets. Ishant Sharma's height will make him a handful, and Ravindra Jadeja's trajectory and accuracy will thwart those that usually dance down the track to play spin.

And Ashwin will always be a threat against those intimidated by the mere mention of "mystery" spin.

The improvement in fielding standards has not surprised many. What most did not expect was that the batting would thrive away from home without the stalwarts that had powered it for a decade – two, in Tendulkar's case.

Dhawan, Rohit and even Dinesh Karthik have played very much the Dhoni way, with confidence and a lack of fear.

In Sri Lanka, however, they face the team they least wanted to meet.

India may have had much the better of the head-to-head encounters since the World Cup – seven wins in 10 – but this Lankan side has an experienced core that makes them dangerous opponents in a knockout situation.

Six of the XI who lost the World Cup final are still around, and Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene have found prime batting form at just the right time.

But, like India, they too have started planning for the future, with Angelo Mathews promoted to the captaincy and the likes of Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne occupying key places in the batting order.

Both teams will crave the trophy, especially the Lankans, who have developed an unfortunate habit of stumbling at the final step.

But the events of the past 12 months have shown that 2015 is probably the ultimate aim.

If a trophy can be picked up in this rebuilding phase, that would just be a delightful bonus.

Dileep Premachandran is the editor-in-chief of Wisden India.

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