Winning is not everything — it is the only thing. The current Indian team seems to have embraced this philosophy and their approach and attitude right through the three-match ODI series against Sri Lanka was geared towards endorsing it.
Make no mistake, Sri Lanka in the shorter format of the game are dangerous opponents. They have power-hitters, good mix of bowlers and impact players who could stretch the home side; and they did.
Additionally, India opted not to field a few of their prime players, notably skipper Virat Kohli and this levelled the odds.
The non-availability of Kohli, owing to his wedding and decision to get some rest ahead of the arduous tour of South Africa, was certainly an enormous blow. It not only robbed the team of its highly successful skipper, but also deprived it of its best batsman who also happened to be one of the finest run-chasers in world cricket.
Few batsmen have kept their nerve under pressure and launched a counter assault in a run-chase as gloriously as Kohli. His absence from the team gave Sri Lanka their best opportunity of putting it across the Indian team.
And they almost did. They convincingly won the first One-Day International (ODI) and grabbed a 1-0 lead in the series. Later their batsmen launched an audacious attack on India’s bowlers in the series-deciding third ODI to notch up 160 for two in only 27 overs. At that stage a total in excess of 325 seemed very much on the cards and, if that had happened, it would have left the home team stranded on panic street.
It was in these situations, when the team was repeatedly pushed to the brink, that it displayed the grit, resolve, attitude and character to push back and overcome the odds.
Significantly, the team management opted to test the team in tricky situations and provided it the experience to try and wriggle out of trouble. To this end, they asked host associations to prepare green tops, believing that the ensuing adversity would prepare the team better for the South African challenge.
However, in Visakhapatnam, the deck was a flat one. It was expected to facilitate a high-scoring match and the opponents showed their appreciation of the pitch by clobbering the Indian bowlers. Indeed they were flying high post the half-way mark when leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal and left arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav who picked up three wickets apiece, derailed the quest for a huge total. Others, Hardik Pandya and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar kept up the pressure and hence Lanka, from a high of 160 for 2 slumped to 215 all out.
In the chase Lanka got rid of the experienced Rohit Sharma cheaply. This could have been a turning point in the match. But India played it smart. The seasoned Sikhar Dhawan held fort at a time when the Lankans expected their tormentor –in- chief to attack the bowling. He did pick up easy runs whenever the ball was in his zone, but left the overt aggression to the young, inexperienced but dynamic Shreyas Iyer.
The Mumbai batsman’s assault took the wind out of the Lankan bowlers’ sails, especially as it caught them napping. They probably expected Dhawan to step on the gas. By the time they regrouped, Shreyas was well on his way to a stroke-filled innings of 65 and Dhawan was stroking the ball with greater purpose.
The big takeaway for India was high confidence levels that are part of successful comebacks.
Turning the tables after that massive defeat in Dharamsala called for enormous effort and skill to launch a fightback. Even in Dharamsala, India were at one stage 29 for 7 before Mahendra Singh Dhoni (65 off 87 balls) found some support from Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah and Chahal to take the team past the 100-mark. The green top and the moisture in the pitch had floored the home team’s batsmen.
The seven-wicket defeat could have demoralised most teams. But India came roaring back in the second ODI in Mohali. They showed great fortitude, skill and character to swamp the Lankans.
Skipper Rohit slammed a double ton (208 off just 153 balls), while Dhawan and Iyer kept the heat on the rivals. The 141-run win did wonders for their spirit and helped the team draw level in the series
Then came that Visakhapatnam ODI where the team showed its pluck and determination to win and thereby grab the series.
Once more, Dhawan was in his elements and his unbeaten century was a richly deserved one.
India will take a lot of confidence from these keenly fought wins to South Africa. The challenge there will be different and plentiful. But if the Indian players could show the same aspiration, confidence and character there could be an upset or two to look forward to.