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"Mahi," began the gentleman on an endearing note. "Because of all the controversies back home, are you looking forward to silencing your many critics?" Dhoni instantly replied. "My focus really is not on the critics or what the newspapers and television channels back home are talking about now. My focus will be on the fact that this is the first time that India will be playing outside the subcontinent with the new one-day rules in place," he said. Then he added: "It will be interesting to see how quickly our players can adapt to it. I think that's the main thing where we are focussing on."
On the day when the group stages came to an end, it is easy to conclude that Dhoni wasn't lying. And he will be happy to know that no other team in India's group has adapted to the new rules as well as Dhoni's players.
The new rules in question mainly concern the powerplays — a period of the game when the least number of fielders (two/three) are allowed in the outer circle, hence allowing the batsmen to up the scoring rate with easy boundaries. There are two such periods in any one-day innings — the mandatory powerplay for the first 10 overs and a five-over batting powerplay that the batting side can choose before the 40th over.
Bowler’s best friend
This rule was introduced late last year with the hope of making the middle overs of the ODI game a bit more exciting with the flow of heavy runs and heavier strokes to the stands. However, quite the opposite has happened. As former India opener Aakash Chopra, who is currently in England as a commentator on Test Match Special, tweeted: "Without a doubt the batting powerplay is the bowlers' best friend."
In this Champions Trophy, the powerplay overs — both the batting and the mandatory ones — have seen the fall of plenty of wickets. With a new ball from each end and the heavily clouded venues conducive to heavy swing bowling in England and Wales have made scoring runs rather difficult. Yet, with the pressure of having to perform during these overs and with wide empty spaces in the outfield, batsmen unable to adapt to these conditions, have risked a little too much during the powerplays.
India's batsmen, on the other hand, seem to have understood this fatal flaw early. Out of six separate sets of powerplay overs that they have faced in three matches, they have lost wickets in just one. In fact, in their group, India have lost the least amount of wickets (2) during powerplay overs and have claimed the most during the same field-restricted overs (7).
It is then of no coincidence that they have topped their group. Pakistan, on the other hand, have lost as many as 10 wickets while batting in the powerplays and have taken 6 while bowling. Does anyone now have any doubts over them losing all three matches and finishing at the bottom of the table?
If you are wondering why we have only discuss the fall of wickets and haven't touched upon the runs conceded and scored during powerplay overs, here's an illustrative point. India have scored 233 runs during powerplays and have conceded 253 with the ball.
wickets in hand
The Indian think-tank plan has been as simple as it has been clear to read. Keep wickets in hand even when the field is in and score risk-free shots at a run-a-ball. In 38 powerplay overs faced by India's batters, they have scored at 6.1 runs per over. All that matters is, in those 38 overs India have lost just two wickets.
And both those wickets (a tired Shikhar Dhawan fell after a century while Dinesh Karthik fell to an upper cut) were during the five overs of the batting powerplay against the South Africans in the first game in Cardiff. But it didn't hurt India much because they hadn't lost too many wickets until then, what with the Indian openers putting on a century stand after having seen through the first 10 overs at less than a run a ball.
And that is pretty much what India have relied on ever since. Rohit Sharma and Dhawan have steered India through the mandatory powerplay overs, with slow starts blossoming into two 100 plus and one 50 plus partnerships. The very key to the new rules, according to Dhoni.
"We are now a side that relies quite a bit on a good start. It doesn't really mean that we always need it to be big or fast," said Dhoni. "Whenever we have gotten off to a good, slow start; more often than not we have been able to go on to win."