Mahendra Singh Dhoni has had a gleam in his eye these past two weeks that rivals even that of the ICC World Twenty20 trophy itself.
India’s captain has made a perfect ambassador. He has been unfailingly engaging and full of ready quips to enliven any situation.
“He’s doing a wonderful job,” Irfan Pathan said yesterday. “He’s young, he’s energetic, he’s pretty positive.”
Listening to Pathan, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Dhoni’s lively approach is rubbing off on his men.
“We’re gelling together well, and we’re pretty confident,” Pathan said. “We don’t fear anybody, we are here to play good cricket.”
That much India have proved by losing just one of their five matches. Indeed, Dhoni is captaining a team that has grown in stature and confidence as this whirlwind tournament has gone on.
India itself might not have decided whether it is ready to embrace Twenty20 cricket, but the Indian team surely has indicated its approval of the new format with a string of fine performances.
Now Dhoni stands on the brink of leading India to the final at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Monday. All that stands in their way is Australia in today’s semi-final at Kingsmead in Durban.
Dhoni himself is in minor doubt for the match with a sore back while Yuvraj Singh, whose six sixes in an over off England’s Stuart Broad on Wednesday electrified the cricket world, is battling an elbow strain.
But it’s difficult to imagine either of these tigers opting to stay in their cages today.
Not least, they will consider the impact their withdrawal might have on the sell-out crowd. Durban is home to the world’s largest South Asian diaspora, and the Indian flags easily outnumbered those being waved by South African supporters during Thursday’s inspired display by Dhoni’s men.
The mere fact that Australia are India’s opponents today will be another motivating factor for Dhoni, Yuvraj and the rest of the team.
Memories of Australia’s belligerent triumph in the 2003 World Cup final in Johannesburg still linger, and what better way to banish them by denying the Aussies entry to the Wanderers on Monday'
Certainly, India have shown the all-round strength required to do just that. “We’re batting really well, we’re bowling well, and most importantly we’re fielding very well,” Pathan said. “So everything is clicking at the same time.
“It does make a difference to have five regular bowlers in the team, and obviously we have a very good spinner in Harbhajan Singh.
“We’re also a good fielding unit, and we bat down the order.”
On top of that, Kingsmead has become India’s adopted home in the tournament. They have yet to be beaten after four matches there.
The significance of those facts was not lost on Australian coach Tim Nielsen.
“India certainly have an advantage because they have played several matches here,” Nielsen, whose team is making its first trip to Durban in the tournament, said yesterday.
“The bowlers have been dominating here, and we haven’t seen the high scores that we’ve seen in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
“Whoever bowls first will have a chance to put an impact on the game. The ball seems to zip around a little later in the evening, and overall there seems to be a different way of playing the game at Kingsmead.”
Nielsen was not surprised that India had reached the semi-finals. “They have a lot of young players who are relishing the opportunity to play for their country, which is fantastic,” he said.
But he wouldn’t be a dinkum Aussie if he didn’t talk up his own side’s chances.
“We feel as though we’re getting better every day. We’ve been able to find our way through the tournament to this stage, and we’ll hit the semi in as good a shape as we can be.”
Those are ominous words, but if India really don’t fear any opposition they will not be fazed.