Juggernaut: In colloquial English usage means a literal or metaphorical force regarded as mercilessly destructive and unstoppable.
If I borrowed a time machine from Dr. Emmett Brown and zapped myself into the early 2000s and said to an Indian cricket fan, “One day, India would be the number one ranked side in the ODIs,” I would, undoubtedly, have been punched in the face for being sarcastic.
However, after basking in the lower half of the ICC ODI rankings table for the better half of 4 years starting in 2003, India’s salvation seemed to have finally materialized in the form of a long-haired hard hitting young wicket-keeper batsman. Following Dhoni’s arrival at helm of the ODI side, India rose at the ranking table like a phoenix reincarnated from the ashes of its battered old self.
After a historic World Cup win and a rough period of transition that followed it, India have finally scaled the summit of world ranking, standing atop after chasing at Australia’s heels for three whole years.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his dynamic style were catalysts in the rags to riches story of Team India (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
But something didn’t quite feel right. Maybe the circumstances under which they reached there – ODI series loss to arch-rivals in their own backyard; or maybe the way they actually got there – barely edging out England (3-2) and backed by the fortuitous 1-2 home series loss for South Africa against New Zealand; it somehow felt more like a underachiever riding the luck of his life onto the champion’s throne while the actual champions recuperate, reorganize and retake the throne rather than a new champion being crowned.
After all, the point difference between India and the second-placed England was only 0.2. But, the three-month long hiatus from ODIs saw ensured that India retained their number one status going into the ICC Champions Trophy.
Champions Trophy was supposed to be a trial by fire for India, an opportunity to dispel any doubts around them being the number one side. Although the good omens were there, like the 4-0 trouncing Australia was handed in the test series and good run of key Indian players in the IPL, we know all too well how volatile and provisory form can be.
Under the overcast English summer skies, on the grassy pitches, everyone expected India to struggle and flounder. Sure enough, they struggled to bowl against Sri Lanka in the first practice match giving away 333 runs with only a couple of wickets to show for. The batting also confirmed what everybody predicted, being reduced to 110-4 in 20 overs. That is the point where India broke off from the script everybody seemed to have made up in their minds.
The turnabout was somewhat fairy tale-like. Before the tournament started, India getting to the knock-out stages seemed a far cry from reality, let alone winning the champions trophy. Win they did, but it is the manner of the victory that was the most fantastic. Their clinical, almost dismissive routings made them instant favorites.
Right after the first league match, it was clear that India would take the trophy. It was just a matter of who would lose it to them. Such was the confidence that their performance leading up to the final had inspired. Two Indian teams won World Cups before this and many other before them won a motley mix of some memorable and some forgotten trophies; but, never before with the dominance and the ruthlessness that was characteristic of this side.
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND – JUNE 24: (L-R) Shikhar Dhawan, MS Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja of India during ICC Champions Trophy Winners Photocall at the Birmingham City Council Building on June 24, 2013 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Paul Thomas/Getty Images)
But the fairy tale wasn’t without its blemishes; in fact there were two in its climactic act itself – the batting brain-freeze that led to a middle-order collapse and almost a premature end to the Indian innings and the loose bowling in the middle overs that almost allowed Bopara and Morgan to run away with the match after the initial strikes.
It was all set for an anticlimax, until the two successive strikes delivered by Ishant were fully capitalized upon by a levelheaded Dhoni to edge out England by a narrow margin. It is said that all is well that ends well, and it did end well for the Indians – after all, they were not only the champions, but also the only undefeated side throughout the tournament, warm-ups included.
But, what was half-exposed during the Champions Trophy final was laid bare by West Indies and Sri Lanka in the first two group matches that India played in the tri-series that immediately followed it. Having backed themselves into a corner and needing to win with a bonus point in both the remaining matches, that too without their captain cool, India, through some gritty performances and help from rain-spiced pitches, somehow managed to come on top.
Although the late resurgence ensured that India’s dominance continues for the moment, two undeniable weaknesses were exposed for the world to see: The top-order’s susceptibility to a collapse in the event of a shaky start and the impotence of bowling unit on ineffectual pitches.
Ishant Sharma, aptly named blunt spear-head by his critics, is only one of the many problems with the Indian bowling unit (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
And the first chinks in the armor of invincibility that shrouded India ever since the Champions trophy started to appear soon after the first ODI in the home series against Australia. Fully exploiting the age old nemesis of Indian batsmen, the short ball, and an insipid performance from the bowlers, Australia made a strong case for why they deserve the champion’s throne.
India’s comeback in the second ODI, on a much flatter track, might have been like a wounded champion’s pride yelling at a spunky challenger, “Is this all you’ve got?”. But, it couldn’t help hide the fact that the throne was giving away underneath them and unless they did something, they might win a bout or two, but lose the title ultimately.
They were no longer the arrogant, redoubtable champions that sealed the final edition of the Champions trophy with their name on it. And the third ODI proved it. Watching the third ODI, was like watching a flashback from the England series at the start of the year. In fact, Team India look very much like they were when they first became the champions – Dhoni salvaging a top-order collapse, tight bowling in the middle overs, and poor death-bowling proving a ruin.
They might not lose their champion status in this series; even on their worst run they wouldn’t probably lose 1-6 in their backyard. No, it isn’t their champion title at stake in this series; it is their credibility as a champion that is at stake. Will India bounce back and show the world why they were called the merciless juggernaut or will they remain a tame champion, counting days at the throne, the next four ODIs will tell.