MS Dhoni and his men beat England in the final to win the Champions Trophy without losing a single match. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the circumstances that had prevailed when the team flew out of India and underlines the significance of the triumph.
Okay, so let me recollect the sequence of events.
Indian cricket was down in the morass of spot-fixing and betting controversies. The flames of scandal and slander had singed many and were on the verge of tarnishing many a famous name through real or spurious associations. Accusations were rife in the press. The present generation of players had supposedly brought the great gentleman’s game to disrepute. Well, forget that the game was linked to match-fixing right from its inception. When have historical facts had anything to do with perception based allegations?
Mahendra Singh Dhoni was painted in dubious colours because of captaining Chennai Super Kings. The team owners or their relations — one is still not sure which — were discovered to have links with shady bookmakers. And then Dhoni was made the target of thousands of barbs of criticism for remaining silent in the face of questions on the betting and fixing controversies. He was roasted in the media.
Hordes of people sharpened their fangs in the aftermath of the Indian Premier League (IPL) scandal, ready to snap at the captain’s seemingly unperturbed heels. His employment by India Cement was brought under scrutiny. His supposed part ownership of Rhiti Sports was scrutinised under malicious microscopes. Many new adherents of the game were discovered, people who took their focus off political discussions about Narendra Modi, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi and shifted their attention to cricket, endeavouring to save it by tarring and feathering every cricketer and administrator in sight.
And Dhoni, his customary calm fascinatingly utilised to guard against this savage intensity of criticism, took the team to England. It was a young side in a country where the ball swung ominously and supposedly exposed the poor technique of the Indian batsmen brought up on instant cricket. In the wake of the IPL scandals, not much was expected of the team.
Suddenly, India started winning. First the warm-up matches, next the group encounters and then the semi-final. All matches were won with absolute clinical efficiency, coasting home with lots to spare. Dhoni had backed certain players for years — Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina being the most prominent. Most of them came off with flying colours. Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma formed a top notch opening duo during the tournament. The bowlers excelled and the fielding was taken to a level never associated with Indian outfits.
Unfortunately, this superb run by the team zonked the passion out the neophyte fans — those who had thronged to the game to cleanse it from the sudden delightful discovered calumny. With the plight of the team no longer a ready target of vilification and self-important remedies, the focus shifted back to the Modis and the Gandhis.
Finally India faced England in the title round. They lost the toss, faced abominable weather, had to wait all day for their innings and finally lost quick wickets. Dhoni himself was out for a duck for the first time after 44 innings, uppercutting a short ball straight down the throat of third-man. Jadeja and Virat Kohli fought hard, but 129 hardly looked a safe total for the 20-over game. It was time to resume the criticism.
However, India fought back. They started defending this abysmally low score with spirit and conviction that pleasantly surprised their biggest fans.
Time and again, Dhoni’s ploys did bring those tentative disparaging fingers to the brink of their keyboards. An expensive Ishant Sharma was made to bowl his full spell. When Eoin Morgan hit him for six early in the fourth over, the tactics were already placed in the sizzling flame of denigration. However, the short balls that Ishant continued to bowl finally bore fruit. Morgan and Ravi Bopara, who had almost taken the game away from India, were dismissed off mistimed pulls, off successive deliveries. Ishant did leak runs, but Dhoni had wisely gone to the most experienced of his pace bowlers. Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar were having difficulty adjusting to the wind. It was sound common sense — something Dhoni has in plenty, something most of his critics can do well to procure urgently. The move had the best chances of paying off and it did.
Many had questioned the rationale of his holding back the last three overs of Ravichandran Ashwin and Jadeja. In the end this strategy won the match. A famously impassive Dhoni was seen jumping up and down in glee the moment Ashwin’s ball beat James Treadwell’s heave. India had won the Champions Trophy, the last missing tournament in Dhoni’s curriculum vitae. Dhoni’s reaction demonstrated how dearly he had wanted to win this.
The Twenty 20 World Cup had come his way in 2007, the World Cup for the 50-overs format had been won in 2011, the team had reached the pinnacle of number one ranking in Test cricket under his leadership, and have recently become the number one in ODI. Now they have won the Champions Trophy as well.
He attained this final feat with a team built from scratch. Indeed, except for a small handful of games played by Rohit, Dinesh Karthik and Ishant under other captains, the careers of all the players in the Indian team have started and blossomed under Dhoni’s leadership.
So, to summarise … Mahendra Singh Dhoni listened to all the questions and allegations about the murky underbelly of IPL. He kept his mouth shut and concentrated on his job, and finally ended up winning the second most prestigious tournament in the world without losing a single match. The last time India did this in a tournament of this stature was way back in 1985, during the Benson and Hedges Mini World Cup in Australia.
In other words, Dhoni lifted the Indian team from the quagmire of match-fixing and betting scandal — and ended up by winning a major tournament, with a team he himself has indeed groomed from scratch.
Well, he is different. After the initial animated reaction on winning, he was back to his serene self, with a twinkle in the eye and faint smile on his face.
It is hoped that the fight against bookies and fixing will continue regardless of India’s success in the tournament. At the same time, it is expected that his many critics will regroup and discover new excuses for all the feathers that continue to crowd his cap.
But, for now, India needs to celebrate this much-needed win. A win to show that in spite of the corruption that has undoubtedly hit many layers in cricket, the team remains committed to excellence and have immense pride in their performance. And MS Dhoni continues to remain the most successful captain of India for many excellent reasons that increase in count with each passing day.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix
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