This article is from Wisden India.
By R Kaushik
Within minutes of India quelling Pakistan's feeble challenge in their World Cup opener in Adelaide more than a week back, a senior journalist asked Mahendra Singh Dhoni, in all seriousness, where India's skipper hid his magic wand, a wand he has waved with stunning effect on the big stage.
"That magic wand actually is the support staff and the 15 players because irrespective of what others think, what really matters is what the guys are thinking, what 15 people who are part of the team are thinking and how the management is working," Dhoni replied, without a moment's hesitation. "Till we are moving in one direction and we are together, there are more chances of us making a strong statement. It's the belief and trust we have in each other. We represent our country, we want to do well. But it's the same with all the other countries also. At times, you have to accept that you were beaten by an opposition that was more suited to the conditions or that played better cricket on that particular day."
At a time when a majority of the rest of the country had lost any belief in the national cricket team, Dhoni kept the fire burning within the group. India had done well to battle Australia on an equal footing in the Test series in December-January, but were still on the wrong side of a 2-0 scoreline. In the tri-series that followed, they lost all three completed matches - including twice to England - and to many, it appeared then that the team was running on empty, that it couldn't wait to go home, the World Cup defence be damned.
Over the last two matches, the Indian team has proved the Doubting Thomases wrong, producing a brand that has been so synonymous with their One-Day International struts of the last few years.
The triangular series last January was used as a testing ground to sort niggling issues out, to figure out combinations and approaches, to determine who fit the bill and who needed a little more time to find his feet. While the results were particularly discouraging, the approach and attitude was not. The temptation to diss the team was overwhelming, and many of us chose not to resist that temptation; all along, though, out in the middle and in the backroom, plans were being formulated and reassessed, ideas thrown around and rejigged.
You might argue that international cricket is no platform to experiment, and you might have a point too, but there is no denying the fact that the last two results - and the manner in which they were earned -- are a direct consequence of the experiments during the tri-series, and the revitalising break between the end of the tri-series campaign and the start of their World Cup defence beginning with the warm-up game against Australia in Adelaide a fortnight back.
"If India are within a victory of making it to the quarterfinals at the first time of asking, it is entirely because they have made their own luck, not because luck has played any significant part apart from Dhoni winning both tosses to date."
If Pakistan were driven to their knees as India rode on the passion of their fans and the strength of their batting to impose extraordinary scoreboard pressure, then the manner in which South Africa were spanked - and they truly were, make no mistake - at a heaving, throbbing MCG on Sunday (February 22) night was an even greater statement of intent and authority. India came into the World Cup appearing disjointed and seemingly lost; inside two games, they have announced to the chasing pack that they won't surrender their crown without a fight. Their toughest challenges in Group B play were to have come from Pakistan and South Africa. Victory margins of 76 and 130 runs respectively have forced other teams, the Australias and the New Zealands, to view India in an entirely different light now.
This dramatic turnaround of fortunes hasn't come around by accident. India kept faith with Shikhar Dhawan through extraordinarily trying times. They asked their bowlers to dig deep and, with help from their coaching group, devise methods of maximising their not inconsiderable skills. Plenty of thought was put into what options gave them the best chance of success. If India are within a victory of making it to the quarterfinals at the first time of asking, it is entirely because they have made their own luck, not because luck has played any significant part apart from Dhoni winning both tosses to date.
"Bhuvneshwar hasn't figured in the playing XI and Rohit is yet to make a mark, but the message the management group has sent out is that it will back the players, almost to a fault if need be."
The core group of this World Cup 15 has been together for the last two years, and Dhoni and the support staff went out of their way to ensure they gave this group every possible opportunity to be physically fit and mentally rested by the time the big one came around. That's why Rohit Sharma was benched for the last three tri-series games, Ishant Sharma was nurtured with care and caution, Bhuvneshwar Kumar encouraged to take his time returning from an ankle injury and not overreach himself in trying to return to the park before he was fully fit. Ishant has since flown back home, Bhuvneshwar hasn't figured in the playing XI and Rohit is yet to make a mark, but the message the management group has sent out is that it will back the players, almost to a fault if need be.
"We had put in a lot of effort and time in these 15 to 17 players. Many of them have played ODI cricket for the last couple of years. When you are putting in so much effort, you have to make sure these individuals turn up for the World Cup because you are giving them a minimum 40 to 50 games, they are the experienced ones," said Dhoni. "The 10‑day break also helped us, and once we returned after that break, we made sure we used the practice sessions in the best possible manner. We requested for a few centre-wicket sessions. That was provided to us, and we gained a lot out of it. We had a few long practice sessions, but we made sure that in between, we have complete days off, also.
"A lot of credit needs to be given to the individual support staff and the team because to have the dressing room atmosphere that we had despite the losses is just something that is very difficult. Not to forget, we get criticised a lot when we are not doing well. You may ignore it to whatever extent, but it still plays a part."
The latest criticism, if you can call it that, is that the team has peaked too early! You can't win them all now, can you?
India's remaining group matches, against UAE, West Indies, Ireland and Zimbabwe, will now be watched with greater interest to see what the levels of commitment and intensity are, whether they take their foot off the pedal, whether the quicker bowlers can retain their fire and accuracy, and whether the batting and fielding will continue to impress and enchant and electrify. Already, that is a massive turnaround from the dismissive way in which the team was regarded until the last 10 days.
But like Dhoni, his team hasn't paid too much attention to what is said and written about them. There is enough wisdom outside of the playing group to impress upon them the need to stay humble and focussed. After all, for all their brilliance, India have won just two games. Seven more, and the title will remain with them. Then, the chest-pounding can begin.