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MS Dhoni 2.0: Accelerator Turns Consolidator

Dhoni Mark I. It’s hard to think of any other cricketer who had such a transformative effect on the sport in India. Previous heroes were gradual evolutions of each other. In Sachin Tendulkar, you could see shades of Sunil Gavaskar. When you watched Rahul Dravid, it wasn’t much of a stretch to connect him to Vijay Hazare. And VVS Laxman’s wristy magnificence invariably brought back memories of Mohammed Azharuddin at his peak.

Dileep Premachandran |Cricketnext |September 18, 2017, 12:10 PM IST
MS Dhoni 2.0: Accelerator Turns Consolidator

Dhoni Mark I. It’s hard to think of any other cricketer who had such a transformative effect on the sport in India. Previous heroes were gradual evolutions of each other. In Sachin Tendulkar, you could see shades of Sunil Gavaskar and the Mumbai school of batsmanship. When you watched Rahul Dravid, it wasn’t much of a stretch to connect him to Vijay Hazare, who had been the glue in India’s line-up decades earlier. And VVS Laxman’s wristy magnificence invariably brought back memories of peak Mohammed Azharuddin.

Dhoni, though, didn’t come from any such mould. He was no variant. He had no desire to be either. It’s not often that you see a 23 year old so staggeringly comfortable in his own skin. If it was an act, it was a damn good one. The impact that he had on those watching was similarly different. His dismantling of the cricket ball was visceral. Cerebral essays and analyses could never do justice to the jaw-dropping reactions his strokeplay prompted.

I still remember Greg Chappell, a man who had seen generations of cricket legends, smile and shake his head as he summoned up Dhoni’s helicopter shot. Something out of tennis-ball-back-street games wasn’t supposed to be teleported so effortlessly, and with so much swag, to the international arena.

As for how he changed things, here’s a little story. On a train journey from Visakhapatnam to Jamshedpur, during the India-Pakistan ODI series of 2005, we had for company a senior executive from one of the many MNCs that were pumping money into cricket at the time. His brief was to get one of the young stars of the team – someone who had made his name a couple of years earlier – to sign on the dotted line.

Midway through the journey, and with mobile-telephone signals far less ubiquitous than they are now, he received a call from HQ. The gist of it was this: Shred the document he had with him, and draft a new one. The previous day, Dhoni, playing just his fifth game, had announced himself with a 123-ball 148. The other young talent was last week’s news. Dhoni was the future.

That day in Vishakapatnam, he batted at No.3. He eased to a half-century in 49 balls, and needed just a further 39 to bring up his hundred. But if you thought it was all about slogging, you couldn’t have been more mistaken. Between 50 and 100, he hit just four fours and a six. The rest of the time, he was like the Roadrunner, hitting and chipping the ball into gaps and running the fielders ragged. Once upon a time, opposition strategy to keep India quiet had been pretty simple: dry up the boundaries and watch frustration get the better of the batsmen.

Dhoni was far too Zen to fall for such methods. If the ball wasn’t there to free those immense shoulders, he didn’t care. He’d just work it around till the loose ball did arrive. But even in his unpredictability, Dhoni was never predictable. A few months after the tour de force in Vizag, he went to Jaipur and eviscerated Sri Lanka’s bowlers. In those days, a target of 299 was still an imposing one. But with Dhoni again promoted to No.3, India breezed home with 23 balls to spare.

This time, singles and twos took a back seat, with Dhoni smashing 15 fours and 10 sixes. It was pristine and powerful hitting and it reduced Sri Lanka to the same state of helplessness that Tiger Woods’s opponents must have felt when he was bashing the ball nearly 400 yards off the tee in his glory years.

As the journey progressed and his role in the batting order changed, Dhoni too evolved. The six-count came down drastically, but for a brief surge in 2013 when he batted with the freedom and fluency of old. But the game itself was changing. The mushrooming of T20 leagues had made 50-over cricket outside of the ICC events a sideshow, and the number of matches also dwindled. In 2014, his last year as an all-format player, Dhoni batted just 10 times in ODIs. It was the same in 2016. To make assessments on form based on such a small sample was both unfair and inaccurate.

But there were definitely signs that he was on the wane. In 2016, an average of 27.8 and a strike-rate of 80 represented his worst returns as an international cricketer. Had the selectors and team management been as trigger-happy as some of their predecessors, he could well have been replaced by Sanju Samson or Rishabh Pant.

But MSK Prasad’s selection panel, Virat Kohli, Ravi Shastri and everyone else who believed can now point to Dhoni 2017 as an example of where a little trust can get you. In 14 innings this calendar year, Dhoni has crossed 50 on six occasions. He averages 89.57 and is striking at 85.65 in the consolidator’s role. With those like Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya around him in the middle and lower-middle order, there’s no great need to dust off the helicopter shot or its cousins.

That doesn’t mean that the old acceleration has been lost though. Breaking down his innings in Chennai gives great insight into his method. When he came to the crease, with India reeling at 64 for 4 in 16 overs, Jadhav was the set batsman. Dhoni still took 16 off the first 20 balls he faced to make sure the innings didn’t stall. But once Jadhav was dismissed and Pandya came out, Dhoni went right back into hold-what-we-have mode. His next set of 20 balls produced just three runs. In the age of instant social-media outrage, that doesn’t just result in the sound of knives being sharpened. You can see the guillotine being prepared.

Pandya is now the late-innings executioner, and Dhoni was perfectly content to turn over the strike and let him savage Adam Zampa. In the third batch of 20 balls he faced, Dhoni scored 16. Decent, but hardly electrifying. Pandya fell soon after, and it was only then that Dhoni shed his office attire for the superhero Spandex and cape.

Balls 61 to 80 saw 23 scored, before poor James Faulkner’s inability to land the slower ball where he wanted was ruthlessly targeted. Off the last eight deliveries he faced, Dhoni made 21. But to obsess on the strike-rate would be to utterly miss the significance of what Dhoni did on Sunday afternoon, in tandem with Pandya and then Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

Few are as adept at assessing the conditions. He knew straight away that this was not one of those 360-400 pitches we had seen during the series against England earlier in the year. It was two-paced, and there was definitely something in it for pace and spin alike. Once the salvage operation was complete, Dhoni made sure that India didn’t overreach and fall short. You can’t buy that kind of nous.

The refrain from the dressing room has been consistent. As long as Dhoni’s fit and keen to play another couple of seasons, he will be an integral part of India’s next World Cup plan. On Sunday night, when his keeping fell a little short of the usual standard, the way he paced his innings was a reminder of just why those in the viewing area swear by him. Dhoni Mark I, flowing mane and all, may just be a memory, but the current version is just as adept at getting the job done.

Team Rankings

Rank Team Points Rating
1 India 5211 116
2 New Zealand 3959 110
3 Australia 4320 108
4 England 5253 105
5 South Africa 3537 98
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Rank Team Points Rating
1 England 6967 124
2 India 7939 118
3 New Zealand 5347 116
4 South Africa 5602 112
5 Australia 5915 110
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Rank Team Points Rating
1 Pakistan 8926 270
2 Australia 7815 269
3 England 6407 267
4 India 12141 264
5 South Africa 6220 259
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