Ganguly's belief, Dravid's obduracy, Dhoni's knack for making impossible possible: How India became masters of the chase
From NatWest 2002 series triumph to the scarcely believable Hobart victory in 2012, India's journey of becoming a chasing power house.
Hrisihikesh Kanitkar kneels and smears the ball over midwicket.
The commentator and opposition Pakistan are dumbfounded. Kanitkar is as astonished as the Indian dressing room. There is jubilation, satisfaction and a tinge of revelation. How can one possibly explain this phenomenon? India had just chased down a record 315 in 48 overs. This was 1998, losing after posting 300-plus scores was rare and everyone's jaws had dropped. It was the first time in India's ODI history that they had chased down a target in excess of 300.
Cut to 2002, when the first innings of the NatWest final had just ended. Nasser Hussain had somewhat answered his critics with a scratchy century. His opposite number Sourav Ganguly was walking back to the dressing room in disbelief. He was among the architects of that famous 1998 win. But his mind didn't allow him to believe that India had it in them to chase down 326. It was screaming, "Another final gone!" (Their record in the finals too wasn't impressive). Truth be told, he had a lot of reasons to worry.
From 1995 to 2002, India had won 65 matches after fielding first and ended on the losing side 63 times. Mediocre, but not bad, right? Here is the caveat: Sachin Tendulkar had scored 25.2 percent of the team's runs during that phase. Of course, each team contains players that carry a lot of responsibility. But the degree of dependency on Tendulkar was crippling for the rest of the team. Let's revisit Romesh Kaluwitharana's most memorable cricketing moment to understand Tendulkar's importance during that particular phase of Indian cricket.
It was the 23rd over of the first semi-final, between India and Sri Lanka, of the 1996 World Cup. Tendulkar mistimed a Sanath Jayasuriya delivery towards the keeper. He wasn't aware where the ball went and Kaluwitharana held his nerves to stump the Mumbai batsman. The score was 98/2, Tendulkar had scored 65 of those runs. It soon became 120/8 before the match had to be abandoned (and awarded to Arjuna Ranatunga's men) because of the violence in the stands.
It could be argued that the deterioration of the pitch had led to an infamous collapse. But it wasn't the first time that India had faltered after Tendulkar's dismissal. It certainly wasn't going to be for the last time... well, until that Lord's victory.
When Ashley Giles' innocuous delivery saw the end of Tendulkar, all hopes had vanished. India were languishing at 147/5 in the 326-run chase. But a 20-year old Yuvraj Singh and 21-year old Mohammad Kaif weren't ready to bow down so soon. Even Kaif's parents didn't give their son a chance; they opted to watch Devdas instead of the match.
But Yuvraj and Kaif were determined. Taking each ball on merit, discreetly and gradually, they made people sit up and take notice. They put the England bowlers under pressure and scored boundaries on a consistent basis. It didn't matter if Yuvraj was caught at short fine leg because Kaif took charge from then and was duly supported by Harbhajan Singh. And then the moment arrived; the moment that triggered the evolution of India: The chasing powerhouse. India had defied expectations, went from 147/5 to 326/8 and emerged victorious in the 2002 NatWest final.
The Indian team then, under Ganguly's captaincy, went on a rampant run after the NatWest final against England. They aced 10 out of 14 chases from July 2002 to March 2003.
Among those matches was the highly awaited clash against Pakistan. Yes, the one at Centurion that saw Tendulkar hit 98 runs. The approach adapted by India during that chase was all-out attack. It was risky, it was spectacular, it could have failed, but it didn't. Such was the might of Tendulkar, that day, that Pakistan could do nothing to stop him. Only a batsman of Tendulkar's calibre could pull off something as special as that. India were going at a run rate of 9 at one stage. Kaif and Tendulkar's wickets slowed down the assault before Yuvraj and Rahul Dravid stitched together a sedate 99-run stand to seal the game.
The belief of the Men in Blue was skyrocketing. Despite being bludgeoned by Ricky Ponting's nearly-unbeatable Australian side in the final, they had a plan to counter the mammoth task. In the dressing room, when India had to chase down 360 to repeat the 1983 World Cup heroics, Tendulkar asked his teammates to not look at the target as a whole. He asked them, whether they could hit a boundary every over. After seeing the nods, he explained further how India's target would be reduced to 160 off 250 balls, if they managed to achieve that small target. The strategy, in hindsight, looks slightly fanciful. But it further underscores how India were maturing under Ganguly's leadership. Their attitudes were changing, they were becoming positive and were fearless when challenged. This was not an Indian team of the 1990s.
Was it enough though?
After the 2003 World Cup, India's impressive record while chasing took a hit. They suffered defeats in 17 fixtures and emerged victorious 13 times. It was a turbulent period in Indian cricket, which saw the resignation of national coach John Wright and the appointment of Greg Chappell. The Australian's tenure witnessed a plethora of changes, the biggest of which was probably the unceremonious sacking of Ganguly followed by the appointment of Dravid.
The Ganguly era was appropriately celebrated. Credit was given to him for instilling the belief in a young Indian unit. He was eulogised as one of India's best captains. No one can deny that. But at the same time, Dravid's captaincy was undervalued. He brought stability to a team that had the confidence, but lacked toughness. He brought them out of their comfort zones.
Dravid took over in October 2005 and instantly recognised how India were losing their way while batting second. He rectified that by persistently opting to field first, irrespective of the conditions, after winning the toss. He changed India's game plan of being frugal with the ball and attacking with the bat. He introduced aggression and also experimented a lot. Remember Irfan Pathan batting at No 3 for India? Dravid's logic was the team should cash in on his striking ability. Even MS Dhoni was sent up the order for a similar reason.
The results were peerless. At one point, India won seven matches on the trot after Dravid had elected to chase. They also went on to complete a world record of 17 consecutive wins while batting second (Dravid captained the side in 14 of those matches). India and Yuvraj, who was a vital cog during that phase, were two runs away from stretching it to 18. But Dwayne Bravo ended India's illustrious run by dismissing the southpaw in the second ODI of the 2006 West Indies tour. The streak had ended... but by only one run.
The high was followed by the low of the 2007 World Cup. It was rather ironic that India's final loss and exit from the event came during a chase. India still lacked the precision in tough moments despite all the progress made in the preceding years. They needed the calmness amidst the storm to understand when and how exactly to go about in a chase and target a bowler. It was also essential to overcome the pressure factor. These particular shortcomings were scaled down during Dhoni's regime. The deadly combination of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir at the top amalgamated with the explosive nature of Yuvraj and the calmness of Dhoni to once again highlight India's dominance while chasing. The common perception was that the success was a by product of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the advent of Twenty20 cricket, in general. Of course the exposure in IPL and to Twenty20 cricket had helped, but those were not the lone factors. If that was indeed the case, why did Windies, two time World T20 champions, require so many years to chase down a 300-plus score: they did that for the first time in 2017. The results, to be fair, were the outcome of the process which had begun after the NatWest series triumph. As of now, India have been the most successful team while chasing 300-plus scores. They have achieved that feat 15 times, the closest after them are Australia and Sri Lanka, who have executed it on nine occasions. To put the rise into more context, India have chased down a target over 350 three out of the six times it has ever happened in world cricket.
One clear reason for this advance: Virat Kohli. Dhoni knew his limitations and structured his game around the bowlers' weaknesses. Time and again it was observed how the former Indian skipper relied on a mistake from the opponent and was an expert at pouncing on it. Kohli, on the other hand, forced the opposition to commit one.
From the outset, he has been a busy batsman. He is a firm believer of running between the wickets. He steals the second run for fun. And it feels like as if he was just sent to the Earth to show everyone how an innings is paced. His mindset is arguably the clearest in world cricket while chasing.
It is probably why India stunned Sri Lanka at Hobart in 2012.
India had to chase down 321 in 40 overs to stay alive in the Commonwealth Bank series. India tried to use the same strategy they tried nine years ago in the World Cup final. The difference this time was that it worked and how! Kohli blasted 133 runs off 86 balls and India won the game in just 36.4 overs.
"We looked to get one boundary in an over, keep playing an over at a time; and if you need 100 runs from the last 10 overs, it was very gettable. So we took it as two Twenty20 games," Kohli had said after the Hobart win.
It might have took India almost a decade to do something so extraordinary but indeed the story of India and chasing had come a full circle on that day Down Under.
A year later, India notched up another scarcely believable victory against Australia in Jaipur. They had been asked to chase 360 — just like the 2003 World Cup final — and the triumvirate of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli practically strolled to 362 with nine wickets in hand and 39 balls to spare! No matter how flat the pitch was or how short the boundaries were, it would have been appalling to not acknowledge the proficiency of India while batting second.
One aspect which still eludes India though is the fact that they have failed to repeat similar chases in world tournaments. The failures at the semi-final of 2015 Cricket World Cup and final of 2017 Champions Trophy are enough to eclipse any gargantuan task India may or may not attain in the future. India's focus now should be to fix that dubious record.
Nowadays, 300 chases are the new normal. Nowadays, it has rather become rare to not see teams gulp down scores above 300. It is akin to kids drinking milk every morning before leaving for school.
Nowadays, India are the kings of chases and the 'astonished Kanitkar' moments are a thing of the past.
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari
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