Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni has told his match-winning young team to remain focused as it approached the business end of the Champions Trophy.
The reigning World Cup champions have enjoyed a remarkable campaign in the eight-nation tournament so far, becoming the only team to enter the semi-finals with an all-win record.
But Dhoni knowns all the good work will mean nothing if his team slips up in Thursday’s second semi-final in Cardiff against a still unknown opponent from the wide-open group A.
“There are, hopefully, still two more matches to go and we must play with the same intensity that we have shown so far,” the Indian captain said.
It has been a formidable display by the tournament’s youngest team in which Dhoni is the oldest member of the side at 31 and reserve spinner Amit Mishra is the only other player aged 30.
Former Test batsman Sandeep Patil’s selection panel has been so ruthless in axing non-performers that the current squad has only three players - Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli - who played in the World Cup final two years ago. The build-up to the tournament was overshadowed by a spot-fixing scandal in the Indian Premier League that led to the arrest of three players, including Test fast bowler Shanthakumaran Sreesanth.
At least two IPL franchise owners were being investigated for betting and the powerful cricket board president Narayanswamy Srinivasan was forced to step aside over his son-in-law's links to illegal bookmakers.
Dhoni himself was facing a conflict of interest issue after it was revealed that he had a stake in a management company that represented several national players like Raina and Ravindra Jadeja.
But the young side rallied around their unflappable captain to put on a winning performance that impressed former players and fans alike. “This is the team of the future,” India’s former World Cup winning captain Kapil Dev told AFP. “They are playing fearless cricket. Easily the best side in the tournament so far.”
Starting the Champions Trophy as rank outsiders despite being the top-ranked one-day side, India began with a 26-run win over South Africa in Cardiff before routing the West Indies by eight wickets.
Then on Saturday, they registered their first success over arch-rivals Pakistan in the Champions Trophy, winning a rain-marred encounter at Edgbaston by eight wickets.
Hard-hitting opener Shikhar Dhawan, who anchored India’s power-packed batting display with two centuries and a 48, is the tournament’s leading scorer so far with 264 runs. Left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja is the top wicket-taker with nine scalps, with good support from seam bowlers Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav.
Kumar, whose 2-19 from eight overs against Pakistan earned him the man-of-the-match award, credited his success to the backing he received from Dhoni and the team management. “He is a calm captain which really helps you prepare for a game,” Kumar said of his captain. “He tells us to forget previous games and focus on the next one. He takes the pressure off.”
Mohsin: Batting hurting Pak badly
Former coach Mohsin Khan has said Pakistan need better planning to overcome their now long-standing batting problems. “Our batting has been hurting us badly and if we don’t address it quickly our team will go down further at the international level,” Khan told AFP. “It is time we take strong measures to address this problem.”
Only captain Misbah-ul Haq, with 173 runs in three matches, batted with any authority, while top-order stars Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik and Kamran Akmal were below standard on Saturday. “It's no comment if you ask me about coach's contribution," said Khan, who was replaced as coach by former Australian batsman Dav Whatmore in March last year.