Dhoni's rejuvenation of Indian One Day Cricket

"Coaches who can outline plays on a black board are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their player and motivate." - Vince Lombardi, NFL Head Coach for the Green Bay Packers.

Vince Lombardi was talking about coaching, but it can be just as easily applied to captaincy, especially of a team that does not even have a head coach. Can one man change the course of a sports team?

Yes, absolutely!

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, captain of the Indian One Day cricket team has just done that.

His young Indian team has won the 2008 Commmonwealth Bank tri-series in Australia, handily outplaying the world champions in two successive games. In less than a year, Dhoni has dramatically altered the course of India's limited over cricket. Those who saw the plodding Indian team that got knocked out after a mere 3 games in the 2007 World Cup will find it hard to recognize the current Indian One Day side and the ebullience with which it plays the game. Dhoni has shown tremendous leadership in building the team ever since he was appointed captain of the Twenty 20 side in September 2007. He was fortuitous that the senior Indian players - Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly - sat out of that tournament. Dhoni was given the freedom to express himself on a young team, but nobody would have expected his young guns to actually win the World Twenty 20. In that campaign he showed that he is not just a natural leader but one who also has a deep understanding of what it takes to win. He is a keen tactician who is acutely aware of his side’s strengths and weaknesses. He was appointed captain of the one day side after that win and was immediately up against a mighty Australian side that was bent upon revenge for their Twenty 20 humiliation. The seniors were brought back in the one day side that went on to lose the home series 4-2 to the superior Australian side but in the following series they managed to hold off the Pakistanis 3-2. All great leaders have the ability to learn from their losses, and Dhoni is a fast learner. He realized that there was no way that India were going to beat Australia when they had so many liabilities in the field, thus for the CB Triangular series he demanded a young and athletic team from the Indian selectors. The selectors had faith in their man and gave him the team he wanted.

Dhoni made missteps along the way, he got his batting lineup wrong in the early matches in Australia but he made changes as the tri-series progressed and he realized that his bowlers had the wood on the Australian team. He didn’t want to give their batsmen a chance to get back into form, so he dropped the notion of the part-time bowler and went in with five bowlers for the latter half of the series. Most importantly he showed the rest of his team, how to bat responsibly. Young firebrands like Robin Uthappa adapted saying that if an attacking batsman like Dhoni can change his game, so can he. Gautam Gambhir transformed from a hit or miss player to become the highest run scorer of the tournament. Before the Finals when scribes asked Dhoni about Sachin Tendulkar’s lack of runs in the tournament, Dhoni replied “Sachin has 16000 runs, and I haven’t even faced 16000 balls.”

Sachin along with Uthappa provided India their two best opening partnerships of the series in the finals against Australia and this went a long way toward India winning the trophy. Tendulkar played two of the finest back to back innings in the finals, bringing back memories of his 1998 Sharjah histrionics against Australia. This has to be Sachin’s finest hour in one day cricket; he laid his heart out there on the field for two successive matches and emerged exhausted but victorious. Dhoni continued his five bowler theory in the finals, he had cleverly hidden the young leggie Piyush Chawla until then and was bold in giving the new ball to the newbie Praveen Kumar. Kumar was a revelation, he has been aptly labeled a “magician” by one of India’s finest swing bowlers, Manoj Prabhakar. Kumar took 6 wickets in the two games, nailing Ponting and Gilchrist in both games. Dhoni’s best bowler in the series Ishant Sharma had to miss the second final with a finger injury but he got the tempest in a tea-cup, Shantakumaran Sreesanth, to step up. At the end of it all, he was calmly smiling and watching his team mates celebrate. It was as if he knew his team was going to win.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has managed to get inside all his players, including Sachin, and has motivated them to a great victory.