Friday, April 17, 2009

The history of defeat

A billion people rejoiced when India's historic Test series win in New Zealand was completed recently***. This article is not totally about celebrating that. Sort of.

Quite a few columnists have taken umbrage with the fact that MS Dhoni settled for the safest option possible (draw first, win second) in the third Test with India leading 1-0 and holding a commanding lead at the end of the 3rd day's play. A couple of examples will suffice - Sharda Ugra in India Today, Samir Chopra on CricInfo and on his blog - Eye on Cricket, and Harsha Bhogle.

I have not come here to praise Dhoni or to bury him.

I like MS Dhoni's captaincy and admire his knack for picking moments in the match where he needs to assert himself. For the most part, he has been spot on in his judgment of these moments. I can see why he chose to be so conservative with the Kiwis on the mat, even as I disagree with his choice to do so. I believe he weighed the long-term over the short-term and took it in his stride. He figured that getting rid of the bogey of a 41 year drought, brought upon mostly because of how infrequently India tours New Zealand, was a bigger burden than winning big. He did not want to risk even the remotest possibility of a 1-1 situation, at the expense of a series win, historical precedent notwithstanding (no team has scored more than 418 runs in the 4th innings to win a Test match). Fair enough. I am willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt in this situation.

The point that many of the columnists made is that Australia would have been more ruthless and would have gone for the kill, etc. But India is not Australia. It aspires to be one on the Test arena and (in my opinion) is just a wee bit short of South Africa and on par with the current Australian team. What this team is really battling is the perception that we have of Australia. The Australian teams of the 1980's were in the doldrums after the retirement of the Big 3 (Chappell, Lillee, Marsh) and it took them a few years of scrapping around under Alan Border before they began winning again. The 1987 World Cup win began their ascendancy, but it was not until the early 1990's that they began to do better. Even then, it went through Mark Taylor to Steve Waugh before the juggernaut emerged. The juggernaut that won everything in sight and, more importantly, was willing to risk losing in order to win everything (classic example - the India tour of 2001, where such an eventuality did happen).

I see this Indian team as being in the Mark Taylor phase of captaincy. It has just gone through the period of rebuilding and inculcating self-belief through Sourav Ganguly, and is now slowly reaping the rewards by having players (Gambhir, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Dhoni, etc.) who have not felt the debilitating sense of loss that comes from being regularly thrashed by the best team of the time. By my estimation, Sourav Ganguly is unsurpassed in the captaincy stakes in one aspect - in that he captained the Test team to at least one Test match victory in 8 different countries, missing out only on New Zealand and South Africa. Even Ricky Ponting has done it in just 6 nations. Steve Waugh won in 8 Test nations, too, missing out on Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (who he never played against).

This was MS Dhoni's first Test series outside India and he is very aware of how perceptions can be built up. He plays up his Captain Cool image to the hilt, though I suspect this is genuinely in his nature to be so, and realized that it was important to be known as a winner both home and away. I think this is what he meant when he said a benchmark had been set. Henceforth, for a few months (or Test series) he has the cushion of throwing back the fact that we have won a series abroad (both ODI and Test) to repel any criticism of the Indian team being tigers at home and kittens abroad. Sadly, we do not play any Test matches until at least November so a lot of the goodwill that this series win generated will dissipate by then.

A final point that the columnists make is that they are afraid that this conservative approach that Dhoni adopted might become terminal. As India begins to justify it's #3 (or #2 or #1) ranking with more regularity in the future, I suspect he will be a lot more ruthless. This one time I am willing to give him a mulligan. His history up to this point does not indicate that being conservative is a natural option for him. Let's just sit back and enjoy the next few years without reading every tea leaf he leaves behind in his wake.

I was very happy with the series win and that was paramount for me. (Very few remember that the Chicago Bulls were 15-2 in the playoffs when they won the 1997 NBA title, but everyone that cares about the NBA remembers that they won the title that year). MS Dhoni probably felt the same way, too.

The ultimate goal before leaving for New Zealand was to win the ODI and the Test series (one T20 match does not a series make).

Mission accomplished.

(*** Do a "billion" people really care about the Indian team? Seriously? That is nothing but a marketer's tagline. Sachin Tendulkar does not carry the weight of a billion people "on his shoulders" when he goes to bat, commentators and writers just like to project that he feels that he does. A majority of the folk in India don't give a damn about Sachin's score and, I am sure, don't really care whether we beat New Zealand or not. If a billion people really felt that passionately about Indian cricket, the IPL would still have been in India.)

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