Is there a method to MS Dhoni’s madness? This question is often asked, and the world ‘madness’ cuts both ways. Dhoni has been the world’s best ODI chaser for most of his career, and a key feature of his chases is that he seems to leave it too late, and then suddenly pull it off. It is mad how late he leaves it – and, in a more positive sense, mad how often he gets there.
It’s not all that mad, I would argue. Dhoni has himself been circumspect about his chasing philosophy, but the there is a coherent logic behind what he does. At the heart of it is this basic truth about all sport: winning is not about doing something special, but about making less mistakes than your opponent.
A good summation of this way of thinking comes from The Special One, a biography of Jose Mourinho by Diego Torres. In it, Torres reproduces Mourinho’s guidelines to his players at Read Madrid, where he was then coaching:
“1) The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors. 2) Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition. 3) Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes. 4) Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake. 5) Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake. 6) Whoever has the ball has fear. 7) Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.”
This might seem to be the polar opposite of my hero in football, Pep Guardiola, whose game is based around keeping possession. But at the heart of that philosophy, also, are the mistakes of the opponent. You can only exploit the mistakes of the other side if you have the ball at your feet, for how else do you score? And the team without possession can also make many mistakes in terms of the spaces they leave and so on. Keeping possession, passing fluidly, always moving can provoke huge errors.
I wrote a column about this once in the context of the only sport I have played professionally, poker, and it is true of all sports. MS Dhoni, who would have made an excellent poker player, gets this. His philosophy of chasing revolves around the knowledge that pressure induces errors. The greatest pressure comes towards the end of a chase, and he backs himself to hold his nerve, and for his opponent to crack. This happens a lot.
Let me break down what that means. Say there are eight overs left in a chase, and MS Dhoni is at the crease. If both he and the bowlers play well, he can expect to score at X runs an over. (Let’s use a poker term and call this the Expected Value, or EV, of that situation.) The required run rate, however, is more than this, at X+2. Something has to give.
Now, most batsmen here will try to bat at X+2 or higher, which will take them out of their comfort zone, and raise the risk-to-reward ratio. They are more likely to make a mistake, and lose their wicket, which could cost their team the game. This is undesirable. As a batsman, rather than you make a mistake that the bowler exploits, you want the bowler to make a mistake that you exploit. You can induce this mistake with immediate aggression, to put the bowler under pressure – but he is going to be under pressure later anyway, so why take a risk at this stage?
Dhoni’s approach is to avoid making a mistake himself, so he eschews undue risks. He is content to bat along at X per over, even as the asking rate rises and viewers make nail-cutters redundant. If the bowler makes a mistake, Dhoni will exploit it, but otherwise he doesn’t mind the asking rate rising to X+4 or X+6 or even X+12 for the last over. He is confident that he will not blink first and make a mistake. And he counts on the bowlers starting to crack as the pressure rises.
Pressure is the whole game. It is so much easier to pitch the ball where you want to in the nets, but in the game itself, surrounded by screaming thousands, the floodlights making you sweat as the Helicopter Man stands in front of you, pressure induces mistakes. You try to bowl a yorker and a waist-high full toss comes. You try to bowl a bouncer into the body and it’s a long hop outside off. You bowl the perfect ball, but hey, you overstepped, free hit.
We’ve seen this time and again in Dhoni’s career. He takes it deep, makes no mistakes himself, and then the bowlers crack. We saw this on Sunday when CSK played RCB and Dhoni made 84 off 48. Two overs to go, 36 runs to get. The impeccable Navdeep Saini, a future India star for sure, bowls a short-and-wide no ball on the third ball, and Dhoni whacks it for six. The free-hit ball is pumped down the ground, where Virat Kohli, of all people, fumbles a throw to the bowler. Still, the over ends with CSK needing 26 off the last over, and Dhoni on strike against Umesh Yadav.
Yadav cannot get the length right the first three balls, which go 4, 6, 6. Then he bowls a low full toss that goes for two, followed by a juicer full toss that goes for 6. Two needed off the last ball. Parthiv Patel does a Dhoni and sends one glove off the ground in case he needs to run a batsman out. He does just that, as Shardul Thakur makes the last mistake of the match by diving too late. CSK lose by 1, as my mind goes back to and earlier mistake: the no-ball missed by the umpire just before the first strategic timeout.
Dhoni’s philosophy of chasing requires his opponents to be more fallible than him. This has mostly been the case. But while Dhoni remains the coolest head in town — and this is the most important skill in sport — there are a number of reasons he has become less effective as a chaser. Let me speculate on some of them.
One: The nature of the chase has changed. In an earlier era, 14 off the last over was considered a lot to get, but Dhoni would back himself to get it against a faltering bowler. Today, he finds him often in situations where you have to get 14-an-over for the last five overs, or maybe 26 in the last over, as he did yesterday. This requires more mistakes from bowlers than in the past, and they are less likely to mess up so much.
Two: Bowlers have become better at handling pressure, partly because of the IPL and other such leagues across the world. There are bowlers who specialise at bowling in pressure situations against top batsmen. They are less likely to crumble against Dhoni. Indeed, give me Jasprit Bumrah bowling to Dhoni with 14 to get in the last over, and I’m backing Bumrah.
Three: Outstanding as Sunday’s innings was, Dhoni’s skills are not what they used to be, and that lowers his EV in every situation. This increases the pressure on him. He will come out on top more often than not in the IPL, but his skills are already fading in ODIs, where he takes longer to settle down, at a cost that could harm his team.
If I am asked to build an all-time ODI XI that will chase 270 in every game, Dhoni walks into it. In that situation, he is the best chaser of all time, perhaps along with Michael Bevan. But if that side is chasing 340, the Dhoni of today might be a liability. As we have seen in recent India ODIs, he finds it hard to roll along at that sort of run-rate, and prefers calibrated run-chases where he can start slow and exploit mistakes at the end. That approach will work less now than it used to.
Maybe this ODI problem is a matter of attitude, not ability, and he will adjust and be India’s match winner in England this season. To my mind, much depends of how high the par scores are. There is a good chance that this will be a high-scoring World Cup, in which case Dhoni’s approach may not work.
Even if his method becomes an anachronism, though, it showcases the correct way of thinking about the game. Induce mistakes from your opponent; exploit them; avoid making them yourself.
(Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for 15 years, some of it in cricket journalism as managing editor at Cricinfo. He has won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism twice. He is currently editor of the online journal Pragati, and a columnist for the Times of India).
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