World Cup Cricket: Dhoni on the decline but still an asset for India

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Ex-skipper Dhoni at a practice session. File Photo: PTI

There was a prolonged delay before the last ball of the 50th over of India’s innings against West Indies on Thursday. Mahendra Singh Dhoni had chipped the bottom of his bat the previous delivery while keeping a yorker from Oshane Thomas out. Two subs ran out with three bats, Dhoni took a few swings with each, finally picked one and settled into his stance.

Thomas, a strapping 22-year-old with pace to die for but a little wet behind the ears, stood at the top of his mark, ruminating on a curious over that until then read 6, dot, dot, 4, dot. He knew of the master finisher, on the wane but still packing a mean punch. He knew that shortness in length was a no-no. He knew what not to do. Yet, as he charged in for one final time on Thursday afternoon, he was inexorably sucked into the world of Dhoni.

Perhaps, he believed that at 37, Dhoni’s reflexes had dimmed, his prowess against raw pace diminished. Perhaps, he entertained visions of hustling the former skipper with a 145-kmph screamer, short, tickling the ribs, evincing an ‘ouch’. Or perhaps, he was just a bundle of nerves, entrapped by the allure of Dhoni, frozen by the reputation of the behemoth. In any case, he chose to bowl in his half of the pitch. Dhoni had half a look at the ball, metaphorically grinned like a Cheshire cat, and deposited the gift deep into the stands beyond square-leg.

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No sooner did the bat make sweet contact with ball than Dhoni whirled around and sprinted towards the dressing-room. He didn’t need visual confirmation of how long the ball had sailed, he didn’t need to see the umpire put his hands up above his head to know that it was a six. It was a throwback to the days when Dhoni invariably finished with a flourish. Those days are, understandably, increasingly becoming rare.

Dhoni will never again be the raging end-overs force he once was. Famous for taking chases to the last over and daring the bowler to execute six balls to perfection or face the consequences, Dhoni seldom was the first to blink. Until, say, three years back, you could see beads of perspiration on the brow of the bowler, you could sense apprehension if not dread when it was Dhoni time. The passage of years has whittled away at the aura; Dhoni can still strike ‘em, but not like the famed, fabled, feared Dhoni of yore.

It’s a reality Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri have embraced in totality. To the outside world, Dhoni in the middle stages of an innings, and especially against spin when his hard hands make it impossible to manoeuvre the ball into gaps like other sub-continental batsmen, can be infuriating, but the team management has made its peace. It is willing to overlook the mid-overs chasm between runs scored and balls faced in the conviction that Dhoni will catch up towards the end. It’s a dangerous game to play, one fraught with extreme risk, but when he does finish with a flourish like he did on Thursday, it seems as if the risk v reward gamble is paying off.

Neither sentiment nor emotion has swayed the think-tank’s approach or clouded their vision. For, in Dhoni, they see far greater value than just a hard-hitting, free-scoring batsman. In many ways, this team revolves around the larger-than-life Dhoni persona; Kohli is the unchallenged captain and the apparent leader, while Dhoni is the skipper’s equal, and sometimes his superior, in decision-making on the field.

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Dhoni has been anything but underwhelming with the bat at the World Cup. He made a critical 34 in a tense chase against South Africa in the opener, helping Rohit Sharma add a match-sealing 74 for the fourth wicket. Against Australia, with quick runs the need of the hour, he slammed 27 off 14 deliveries. In Southampton against Afghanistan, he seemed guilty of dawdling for too long but with Bhuvneshwar Kumar not in the eleven and numbers 8, 9, 10 and Jack merely making up the numbers, his measured approach in Kedar Jadhav’s company was the difference between a hard-fought win and an embarrassing defeat. And at Old Trafford, he eventually finished 56 not out off 61, an effort that put the issue beyond West Indies’ reach on a surface of dubious credentials.

If there is one glaring lacuna in the Dhoni game, however, it is in the high percentage of dots that he plays out. Because he goes with hard hands and plays in straight lines, it becomes easier to set fields to cut out the annoying singles that disrupt the rhythm of bowling units. The static nature of the score board when Dhoni is on strike thus puts immense pressure on his partner. Again, that’s a compromise Kohli is happy to strike.

“When he has off-days, everybody starts talking. We back him, he knows how to bat with the tail. His experience, eight out of 10 times, works for us,” Kohli said of Dhoni after the West Indies victory. “If he says 265 is a good score on a pitch, we don’t aim for 300 and end up scoring 230. He’s a legend for us, and hopefully he’ll continue.”

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That Kohli respects Dhoni’s reading of the game, and relies heavily on his predecessor for inputs on pitch-behaviour, DRS challenges, sometimes bowling changes and often field settings towards the end of the innings is no secret. Dhoni’s constant stream of advice to especially the spinners, helpfully captured by the stump mics, is another string that ties him inextricably to India’s web of success. Despite the odd uncharacteristic error behind the sticks, he is still the country’s best gloveman, and takes the heat off Kohli at the death when the skipper sometimes retreats to the boundary line. It’s a marriage that has worked well for Kohli, for Dhoni, and for the team.

That being said, Dhoni will be the first to admit that he is feeling the strains of age, of a 13-and-a-half-year international career, of the pressures and expectations of having been an Indian cricket captain for so long. Once in a while, when he turns down a tight single he would have previously completed without blinking, or when he breathes heavily after a scrambled brace, he reminds you that he is only human, all too human. But he is still the best white-ball wicket keeper-batsman-mentor-guide-co-leader-fielding captain-wise-head in Indian cricket. And, as Kohli insists, that’s all that matters.

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