It has been some week and cricket conversations have dominated drawing rooms, dining rooms and board rooms. If we are not discussing l’affaire IPL – Lalit Modi, deals, share-holding et al — we are talking about Sachin Tendulkar – and Mumbai Indians’ decision to hold Kieron Pollard back until just three overs were left and the team needed a massive 55 runs to win the IPL final against Chennai Super Kings.
The ill-informed screamed “Fixed” and at once were insulting the extremely agile leadership skills of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. His field placing was excellent and the manner in which he rotated his bowlers superb. The left-arm spinner Shadab Jakati, who was being hit for runs by the left-handed Abhishek Nayar, was pulled out and Suresh Raina’s off-spin introduced. A run out and another wicket later, Jakati was reintroduced.
For a man who had led his side most efficiently until then, Tendulkar appeared to falter on the home stretch. Perhaps, Pollard was being shielded from the spinners and retained for the final push against the faster bowlers but to my mind, sending Harbhajan Singh ahead of Ambati Rayudu and the left-handed Saurabh Tiwary was a huge mistake.
Come to think of it, in many ways, T20 cricket makes a greater demand on captains than even Test cricket. A chance meeting with former Australian cricketer Dean Jones and Ajay Jadeja in the guest lounge at NDTV’s studios in Delhi gave me the chance to acquaint myself more on how captains need to be thinking not just out of the box but on their feet in Twenty20 contests.
Jadeja pointed out how Dhoni took Jakati off the attack and brought back from the other end immediately since the left-hander had been dismissed. Jones sprang in and spoke of how the game made demands of all players. “The captain is telling one of his boys to be ready to bowl an over but events in the ongoing over – runs or wickets – would demand him to shelve that plan and call upon someone else to take charge,” he said.
During our conversation, Jones also pointed out that the Japanese city of Kyoto escaped the A-bomb during World War II because the US Secretary of War – Henry L Stimson – in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations – insisted that no point would be served in bombing an intellectual capital. He recommended that places were weapons were being made be bombed instead. The plane, which should have been finding its way to Kyoto, was sent to Nagasaki, instead.
As he was citing this as an example of thinking on one’s feet, Jones’ right hand was animated, simulating a plane that was heading one way but diverted in another direction. To me, it was education as I had never had the opportunity to research World War II. Yet, I was left admiring how the best minds are constantly drawing from life. And the Australians are so good at using lessons from war to sharpen their tactical acumen.
Then again, it is not as if Tendulkar hasn’t done any such out-of-the-box thinking before. Back in 1996, on a dusty Motera pitch in Ahmedabad where spinners were expected to try and pressure the South Africans during their chase of a modest 170-run fourth innings target, he brought back Javagal Srinth to break a partnership that Hansie Cronje was building with Dave Richardson. Srinath finished with figures of six for 21 to emerge man of the match.
And to revert to Mumbai Indians’ final against Chennai Super Kings, it is not as if he did not make an attempt to counter the Chennai Super Kings’ tactics. The ploy of sending Harbhajan Singh to try and get the scoreboard moving did not work. Nor did the idea of keeping Pollard back for the final onslaught make any sense, given the mounting asking rate. I don’t believe that Tendulkar would have cast the batting order in stone and stuck to it.
Suffice to say that in the tactical skirmish, Dhoni had his nose ahead nearly all the time. And Jones agreed with me that the captain’s role in the Twenty20 game is the closest to being a chess Grand Master, with his team-mates being the pieces on the board. And talking of chess, did not even that master tactician V. Anand falter in his opening game of his FIDE World Championship match against Veselin Topalov in Sofia? He blundered on the 23rd move and had to resign on the 30th. The world’s best sporting icons can make tactical mistakes and we would do well not to attribute dubious motives. It is time again to watch sport for what it is and not watch it through tinted glasses. In any case, tinted glasses never make for good spectating.