‘Men in Blue’, Blue brigade’, ‘Bleed blue’, these are words that we are all familiar with. The common factor in all these is Blue, the color of our national cricket team’s kits in limited over formats. For the last decade or so, it has always been blue, and frustratingly enough, similar tones of blue for long periods. If we look around team kits of all other ODI teams, they mix it up often enough to kill the boredom associated with that familiarity. There was one appreciable change in mid 2009 when India adopted a darker blue, which was received well by fans as it exuded more confidence than the lighter shades of blue. This piece is however not about jersey colors, it is about the men who wear them, Team India, our ODI team.
The last decade has often been looked upon as the most successful in Indian cricket’s history. The best highlighted have been the successes we have had in Test match arena and rightly so. But let us have a look at our ODI exploits for the last 13 years or so, which have some high points over the course of time. We always have had strong batting line ups and much of our success hinged on our batsman either putting up huge scores on the board or chasing totals down. They flutter too along the way, but they often responded to the team’s call.
Sourav Ganguly took over as captain of the team in 2000. The unsavory match fixing episode of 2000 meant stalwarts like Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja would never ever play for India. For all the brilliance of Sachin Tendulkar in the 1990’s, it would be unfair to overlook the contributions of players like them for whatever little successes we have had in those times. But the team under Ganguly was something different. They started to hunt down chases. If Jadeja and Robin Singh often used to get us so near to an otherwise improbable target, Yuvraj and Kaif started to win it for us. Rahul Dravid started to play the floater role in the middle order. He literally had to keep his pads on always once he started to keep wickets for India in ODIs.
Sachin Tendulkar started to play the percentages more, yet on any given day he would unleash his majestic stroke play against the best of bowlers. Ganguly started to pollute his silky smooth stroke play with odd agricultural heaves, but in the process became a much more dangerous batsman in the format. Sometimes, he even outscored Tendulkar in some big century partnerships. Then Sehwag came along and outscored and out-thought everyone. Even after Dravid became the captain, our batting continued to flourish. We became chase masters in ODIs by winning 17 matches on the trot under Dravid. Players like Kohli and Dhoni have now taken that chasing mastery to an all together higher level. MS Dhoni arrived on the scene as a hard hitting wicket keeper batsman, but showed enough cricketing acumen to be elevated as the captain of the team in 2007. He re branded his batting by mixing a bit of Javed Miandad street smartness into the old power game of Dhoni. That deadly combination meant his became the most important wicket in the Indian line up.
Under Dhoni’s captaincy players like Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina became permanent fixtures in the team. The hitting prowess and the fearlessness they showcase, makes India a watchable side even for fans who aren’t Indian supporters. If we look at the statistics, most of the batting records in this format during this period are set by Indians. They have successfully chased down targets of over 300 as many as 13 times in the history which is almost twice the number of the second team in that list, Sri Lanka with 7. Well, that attributes to one thing most people would find as India’s major weakness, the bowling. To chase down over 300 consistently you need to concede that much first.
When we compare the Indian ODI sides over these period to that of the likes of the Australian or South African outfits, it’s the bowling that looks pale. Bowlers like Ajit Agarakar, Ashish Nehra and Irfan Pathan have had their moments, they sometimes managed to get that new ball talking and get that yorker on the spot in tense finishes but bowled some filthy stuff along the way too. Zaheer Khan burst onto the scene in the 2000 Champions Trophy and by and large carried the bowling spearhead role for a long time. Anil Kumble sparingly appeared in ODIs once Harbhajan Singh made his presence felt. Harbhajan for a long while was India’a 40-1 bowler, figures which needed other bowlers to chip in too to have a match winning effect.
India have achieved some memorable ODI wins too during this period. Natwest Series win in 2002 constitutes a seminal moment in our cricket. That same team reached the finals of the 2003 world cup on the back of some solid all round performances led by Tendulkar who batted through from one innings to another in that tournament. In 2007, out of nowhere, India won the inaugural 2007 World T20. Then at home under Dhoni in 2011, won the world cup healing the wounds of that first round exit in the 2007 world cup. Yuvraj Singh showcased his true potential as a match winner in both these world cup victories. In between all these they won ODI tournaments in Pakistan in 2004 and 2006, Sri Lanka in 2009, Australia in 2008, England in 2002, West Indies in 2011, and New Zeland in 2009 to go with many bilateral tournament victories at home. They also won the Asia Cup in 2010.
India never had the intimidating aura of the Australian sides of Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting. An Australian victory during their period of invincibility was received with a casual appreciation of the obvious, while every Indian victory on the big stage was always a cause of celebration. An emergence of a new team spirit was lauded even when there was hardly any personnel changes in the team.
Now, the Indian team is in the middle of a Champions Trophy campaign in England. They have mostly surprised the pundits with their showing in this tournament. But what they are doing is actually putting together those facets of their game which have all worked pretty well before too, may be not always simultaneously. Most of the players in the team have reasonable experience at the international level, so it is not a team of rookies by any means. Dropping non performing senior players have helped too. It helped to rejuvenate the fielding unit and also to give Dhoni more of a free hand to assert his personality on the team.
So is it Dhoni’s team now ? Dhoni is as much a man who polarizes opinion as Ganguly does. He is the punching bag, the whipping boy for many Indians, for reasons which are unknown. If there are any reasons, then it must be non- cricketing ones. Ganguly formed a team of highly skilled, competitive players who expressed on the field and never backed away. If the same theory applies here too, then Dhoni’s team would be playing hard cricket, but treating it just as a game and they would always be playing with a smile. They may collect some more trophies in the process.
P.S: This post may appear as a one eyed view on the Indian team, an eye of a fanatic supporter. Indian team have had their fair share of losses too. If we go by the stats from the start of 2000 to up until now, India are placed only in the 4th position based on Win/Loss ratios in ODIs, behind Australia(2.64), South Africa (1.81), Sri Lanka (1.36). India have a ratio of 1.34. I have written this post just to express the joy of a fan when his team tends to do well and how these victories make an everlasting impression on our mind.