For the first time in recent memory, India came into a World Cup well rested and well prepared.
Unlike in the past where they would flit from the IPL directly to a tournament of the magnitude of a World Cup, they arrived in Australia a good two and a half weeks before the start of their first match against Pakistan in Melbourne on 23 October.
The first ten days were spent in Perth, adjusting to a different time zone and to the spicier pitches in anticipation of what lay in store at the mega event. The caravan then moved to Brisbane for official warm-up games against Australia and New Zealand (washed out), before pitching tent in Melbourne for the marquee contest.
Immaculate attention to detail is one of the hallmarks of Rahul Dravid. Even during his playing days, the redoubtable No. 3 had personal routines that he practiced without fail before every match, big or small. One of that involved visualisation the day before the game; it’s a habit that’s rubbed off on several of his wards now, who spend the day before the match receiving throwdowns and visualising rather than hitting hundreds of balls in the nets.
In the immediacy of the ten-wicket drubbing at the hands of England in Thursday’s semifinal in Adelaide, it’s tempting to underwrite this as another doomed campaign poorly planned. But that can’t be farther from the truth. India ticked all the boxes and covered all bases, and yet were found wanting when it came to the crunch.
They were simply punished for playing poorly on the day by an England side that got on to the front foot at the first available instance, and remained there for the duration of the contest, first with the ball and then with the bat.
Calming Influence of Captain and Coach
Throughout the World Cup, India were neither tetchy nor restless. There was a certain calmness about them that was a direct offshoot of the temperament of their captain and their head coach.
Rohit Sharma is as intensely competitive as they come, but he doesn’t let that take over his persona. Dravid has been there and done that- he allows players space and draws on his immense playing experience to give them what they need without pampering them.
The ease of communication and the relaxed air within the camp was evidence enough that the management group had unearthed the right formula for a positive atmosphere, while at the same time demanding subtly that players respect the license accorded to them by being responsible for their actions.
Once the tournament started, all training sessions were optional.
It wasn’t because India felt they had taken a giant step towards the semis by defeating Pakistan, but because they were convinced that much of the prep work had already been done, that only topping up remained and those who felt the need to do so, could.
From Sydney, and the game against Netherlands, players arrived at nets depending on what they wanted to get out of the sessions. These sessions didn’t spill over to four or five hours; they were shorter, crisper, meaningful and focussed.
The pace bowlers were especially properly taken care of, because while four overs in a game may not seem much, they are delivered under great pressure, with so much at stake and given the travel-train-play routine, it was as important to focus on their recovery and state of body and mind as on their skills. After having played so much coming to Australia and practised a lot in these conditions, a session more or less wouldn’t make a decisive difference.
Many years back, in this same country, after defeat at the hands of Australia in the first Test in Melbourne in 2007, skipper Anil Kumble gave his team the day after the loss off, almost insisting that they stay away from cricket. His contention was that there was enough quality in the side, and that one additional practice session wasn’t the difference between victory and defeat. The skipper stood vindicated when India won in Perth that summer for the first time ever and held their own in Adelaide, all this after the severe provocation of 'Monkeygate' in the second Test in Sydney when Harbhajan Singh was accused of racially abusing Andrew Symonds.
The relaxed mien extended to press conferences which were populated by senior players who brought a sense of humour along with them.
Sample this from the skipper on semifinal eve, when he was asked about Suryakumar Yadav. “He’s the sort of guy who just doesn’t carry any baggage with him,” Rohit said, then added with a mischievous smile. “Not his suitcase. He’s got a lot of suitcases, honestly speaking. He loves his shopping! But when it comes to carrying the extra pressure, extra baggages, I don’t think he has that in him.”
That provided a window into the skipper’s mind – a big game was round the corner but that didn’t mean life began and ended with that.
The constant travel didn’t give them the time to soak in the various cities they travelled to, but whenever they were mobbed for selfies, including by several members of the media corps who were less professionals and more cheerleaders, they obliged uncomplainingly.
No one turned on the charm offensive more pronouncedly than Virat Kohli. Even during the Asia Cup in the UAE, the former skipper was at his friendly, approachable best. In Melbourne the day before the last league game against Zimbabwe, on his 34th birthday, he obliged requests from the media contingent to cut a cake and pose for photographs. It was a far cry from the time when he would snarl at what he considered the slightest hint of intrusion, or when he mistook one journalist for another and took offence at what had been written about him.
For all the criticism they will rightly receive for their terrible meltdown in their biggest match of the competition, it’s worth remembering that the players will be hurting more than anyone else. Thursday was a night to forget, a night when there seemed no sync between planning and execution. India were poor, abysmally so. But this night will not define them. It should not.
A respected commentator said to a few of us in the press box after the defeat, paraphrasing Boris Becker at Wimbledon 1987, “India have just lost a cricket match. No one died.” Overly simplistic, perhaps, but definitely worth a ponder.