India vs Pakistan World Cup 2015: Dhoni’s strategic masterstrokes deliver clinical victory

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CLINICAL. A word which, in the context closest to what I am pursuing, is defined by Oxford Dictionary as: very efficient and without feeling; coldly detached. A word, whose association in the cricketing sense, almost begins and ends with Australia when it comes to long-term positioning, also temporarily attributed to other teams who occasionally rise above feelings associated with mere mortals to register famous victories. A word hardly ever associated with India vs. Pakistan clashes, World Cup or otherwise, which are always high adrenalin, passionate, memorable moment generating affairs.

And yet, even after churning my mind over with a plethora of adjectives to select one which would best capture the essence of the mauling India handed out to their neighbors at the Adelaide Oval in a marquee contest of the 2015 ICC World Cup, the winner is – clinical. In a match mostly bereft of the intensity and heated exchanges normally associated with Indo-Pakistan clashes, barring the sea of blue and green jerseys in the stands, MS Dhoni downed his counterpart Misbah-ul-Haq in a strategic battle which saw the Pakistanis crash to one of their biggest defeats on the World Cup stage. 

Dhoni’s masterstroke #1: A perfect XI, given available resources

After numerous permutations and combinations with the playing XI in the run up to the tournament, an act which can be dubbed experimentation or red-herring strategy, depending on one’s appetite for conspiracy theories, Dhoni got together the perfect XI, given the resources.

This batting line-up, which finally looks fearsome, at least on paper, should not be tampered with at all. Ambati Rayudu, for all his earnestness, is unfortunately not in the same league as the rest of the batsmen, and his eviction makes the line-up look formidable, though perhaps one batsman lesser than optimum.

Ravichandran Ashwin, ignored for a majority of the tri-series, delivered one of his best spells in recent times overseas; the confidence with which he bowled both the regular offies as well as the variations, was not on show in recent times, and definitely hints at the possibility of Dhoni playing this one close to his chest.

The seamers, sans Bhuvneshwar Kumar, were impressive. Ravindra Jadeja looks the weakest link in the bowling attack, and could make way for Akshar Patel, should India persist with two spinners, or Stuart Binny on pitches more conducive for the swinging ball. 

Dhoni’s masterstroke #2: Reining in the firebrands

In what is unlikely to be a coincidence, two of India’s biggest firebrand batsmen, Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan, albeit at opposite ends of the spectrum as far as form is concerned, displayed immense maturity in building their respective innings, in a complete departure from the recklessness both demonstrated during the recently concluded tri-series tournament in Australia.

Kohli did have his momentary brain-freeze, when he almost replicated his dismissal off Nathan Lyon in the second innings of the first Test of the Border-Gavaskar 2001 series, at the same venue, while attempting a short-arm pull off Shahid Afridi. A better fielder than Yasir Shah might have drawn the curtains prematurely on a now-historic innings, but Kohli survived.

Even more impeccable was Dhawan’s shot selection, and after surviving a trying spell from the seven-footer Mohammed Irfan, the southpaw settled down into his best innings on the Australian tour thus far. Dhawan looked more comfortable than Kohli at the crease, mixing caution with aggression, and was set for a big 100 before the misunderstanding cut short his innings.

Dhoni’s masterstroke #3: Raina’s promotion

When Dhawan fell in the 30th over with the score reading 163, the stage looked set for an in-form Ajinkya Rahane to come in and consolidate the innings between overs 30-40, before Raina and Dhoni launched the final assault in the death overs.

In a masterstroke reminiscent of the skipper promoting himself over Yuvraj Singh in the 2011 World Cup final, Raina came in ahead of Rahane, and played the best innings of the day, slamming 74 runs off just 56 balls to nitro-boost the Indian score, raising visions of a 320-330 target before his dismissal triggered a mini-collapse.

Not many can match the strike-power of an in-form Raina, but taking the call despite a lackluster showing by the southpaw of late, was undoubtedly a masterstroke. 

Dhoni’s masterstroke #4: Tearaway bowling: a leaf out of Imran’s book?

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Exactly a week before the monumental clash, in the warm-up game against Australia, India opened its bowling with Stuart Binny and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, both bowling gentle seam-up deliveries in the 120-125kmph range which hardly posed a threat to the Aussie openers.

Against Pakistan however, the bowlers seemed to be under specific instructions to bowl as quick as possible, not worrying too much about wides and no-balls, a theory made famous by the majestic former Pakistan skipper Imran Khan during the 1992 World Cup.

Umesh Yadav opened the  bowling with a wide which set the tone for the rest of the innings, which saw a total of 10 wides and a no-ball, a statistic which could have the experts wrinkling their noses at the indiscipline. From a cup-half-full viewpoint, the number, considered alongside the overall bowling display, was also an indicator of the quicks’ aggression  – both Yadav and Mohammed Shami bowled regularly in the 145-150kmph range; even the relatively slower Mohit Sharma was touching 140kmph.

There was no let up on the short stuff, seldom allowing the Pakistani batsmen to get on the front foot. Dhoni displayed no anguish and neither did he reprimand the bowlers when some of these deliveries sailed well clear of the batsmen to be called wides.

The agenda was clear – bowl fast and intimidate the batsmen. With the quicks picking up 8 wickets between them, the move, in tow with other strategic masterstrokes, saw India canter home in a one-sided contest.