Commentators talking of the fabulous run India’s limited overs teams have had since the first edition of the T20 World Cup invariably bring up all-round bowling skills, improved fielding and most importantly, a deep batting lineup of incandescent stroke-players.
There is one other quality to that team, unquantifiable, hence largely unmentioned — self-belief. Time and again, the team had pulled off wins where earlier versions would have given up the ghost; batsmen ranging from Yuvraj to Raina to Rohit and Yusuf have shrugged off steepling asking rates and air-tight bowling, tapped the ball around and timed their explosions to a nicety. They won because in every situation, against every opposition, they seemed to believe they could win; because for them defeat did not seem to be the faintest blip on the mental radar.
It is this quality the WC version of the team appears to have lost — as dramatically exemplified by the stumble when chasing a mere 131. Grant that the wicket was tired, slow; grant too that the South African bowling lineup had been strengthened further by the inclusion of Albie Morkel; and above all, grant that the all-star South African fielding, where even the tall fast bowlers are assets in the deep with their speed across the turf and additional reach on the dives and slides are worth an extra 25 runs to the side.
Even, for argument’s sake, grant that the team must be on a mental low after their unexpectedly early exit and, for all that commentators talk of playing for pride, it is difficult to get your game on when the outcome makes no difference.
Even so the middle order stumble, after being 47/0 at the end of the power plays [the ask at that point was 84 off 84 balls with ten wickets in hand; even with the inevitable slowdown after the PPs, India went into the second half of its innings needing just 73/60], was uncharacteristic.
Once the two set openers got out to adrenalin overdose and injudicious strokes, those who followed — Suresh Raina, MS Dhoni, even the normally imperturable Yuvraj Singh — seemed to bat in a state of near panic. That mindset was best underlined by Harbhajan Singh who, promoted ahead of Ravindra Jadeja, swatted Dale Steyn over extra cover and then hit the kind of straight six back over the quick’s head that a front line batsman would have been proud to add to his resume. Clearly it was all in the mind — and Bajji’s was, on the day, the only one uncluttered enough to see the task for what it was: doable.
This mental choke was all the more inexplicable because in the first half of the game, the team had looked sharp, more focused than it has been for a while.
Having overslept once while in Chicago to attend a journalism conference, I dashed into the hall to attend the opening keynote, grabbed an inconspicous seat at the back, and sat for a bewildered few minutes before I realized that I had accidentally gotten into the wrong hall. It was the annual convention of the American dental association.
There was that same air about the Proteas during their innings — that sense of having accidentally wandered into a spinners’ convention as, starting as early as the sixth over, they were treated to every gradation of ‘slow’ by Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh.
AB de Villiers’ knock was worth a big hundred, in context: he was the only one among the Proteas who scored at over a run a ball, because he was the only one who absorbed the pressure of the spinners’ chokehold, didn’t mind looking silly while he struggled, and had the mental fortitude to ride the rough and wait for opportunity where his mates looked to somehow muscle their way out of the fix. AB, in fact, alone had what the Indian team lacked on the day.
Other problems have been addressed by, among others, George Binoy here, and Ayaz Memon here; the days ahead will likely bring a lot more in the form of comment and criticism. Meanwhile, the Indian selectors meet today to pick the squad for the West Indies — there is an expectation of rolling heads, but I suspect the committee will treat this for what it is — a bad stumble, admittedly, but still just a stumble — and be reasonably conservative in their picks.
PostScript: In India, familiarity breeds orchestrated effigy burnings. In Trent Bridge, the stands overflowed with cheering Indians for a non-contest; MS Dhoni was booed right at the end, but handled it with gentle humor.
PPS: Busy day, mostly away from desk. Back on here much later.