Dhoni: A deadly shadow behind the batsmen’s back!

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s wicketkeeping is a microcosm of inches and seconds. And India ought to enjoy every minute of it while it still can.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a solid wicketkeeper in his own way.   -  K. R. Deepak

Left-arm seamer Barinder Sran drops this wide of off-stump. Glenn Maxwell, not one to let a freebie sail past him, scythes it wide of mid-off.

The chase is on.

As Umesh Yadav gathers the ball, turns around and fires a throw at the ’keeper’s end, Maxwell and his partner Shaun Marsh are about to complete a third — a regulation three, it would seem.

But there he was, nonchalantly standing by the stumps, without an iota of urgency in his stance. For all his deadpan expression, Mahendra Singh Dhoni with the gloves on is like a pelican unable to ignore a fish. Marsh is about to find out.

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As the batsman draws closer to the popping crease, unaware of his fate, the ball beats him to the ’keeper and off the bails go, in a jiffy. The magician has pulled off another deliberate bluff or is it an act of opportunity — only he knows.

“I think he’s a better version of Rod Marsh — we used to call him ‘Iron Gloves’ — but Dhoni’s better according to me,” Bharath Reddy, India’s main wicketkeeper during the 1979 tour to England, told Sportstar.

With all the talk about the waning powers of Dhoni gathering steam, the 35-year-old remains sharp as ever behind the stumps. For all his fabled lore with the willow, the former India captain’s wizardry with the gloves though, had occasionally taken a backseat.

If, as a batsman, he makes sure the spotlight remains on him, as a ’keeper, he likes to lie low and observe, as the action unfolds in front of him. The cool head and rapid reflexes help curate the action from behind, while crouching low and analysing how the batsman’s feet moved to negotiate the ball. Dhoni has always been a better ’keeper standing up to the stumps — this way he is not only able to keep a batsman on his toes but armed with fast hands and an unabashed match awareness, manufacture dismissals where there seemed to be none.

It’s worth noting, however, that Dhoni’s stumping style is a signature move in itself, leaving the opponent in dismay and those watching, waxing lyrical about it. It is an enticing ballad about how the batsmen meet their impending demise without an iota of knowledge about it — it starts with a batsman getting beaten on the forward defensive, dragging the foot outside the crease, ever so slightly. 

As the ball escapes the edge and thuds into the gloves, the woodwork is disturbed almost simultaneously. And the batsman is out before he even knows what hit him.

As a stumper, Dhoni strikes like a cobra, leaving a batsman’s backfoot stranded on the line.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

Where Dhoni scores over other ’keepers is in his ability to collect the ball without pushing his hands back. The more the action on the ball, the more a ’keeper will push his gloves behind to absorb the force.

But he is always moving his gloves towards the wicket, almost gathering the ball en route, saving himself that extra second, which is often the difference between out and not out.

While bowlers are busy devising new ways of catching a batsman unawares, Dhoni has been honing his repertoire with out-of-the-box methods to try and keep a batsman from scoring.

Last year during an IPL match against Kings XI Punjab, Dhoni intercepted a late dab towards third man by sticking his right leg out perpendicularly. Since then, it has become another vaunted skill, one which neither the batsman nor the bowler would see coming.

That ease of execution could be deceptive though. His hands rarely move — a fail-safe in case the batsman misses the ball — which speaks for the character of its practitioner. A crucial tenet of Dhoni’s captaincy, before he grew defensive with time, was his willingness to pre-empt a situation and set the field accordingly.

Dhoni also has this deadly way of running out batsmen... with a lethal back flick.   -  K. R. Deepak

 

With age, as with many things, his batting has gone into a shell, but Dhoni — the ’keeper — still wants to be one step ahead of the batsman. The result is an act of sangfroid whose outcome is beyond doubt, more often than not — the eyes, head and arms are in precise harness — as the straightening legs stretch out to deny the batsman a run.

A technique as unique as this gives the captain the carte blanche to have the short third man fielder slightly wider than usual, and even have the fine leg inside the circle.

He really likes unorthodoxy. And his keeping isn’t exactly a picture of aesthetic either.

There’s nothing eye-catching about locking both feet to prevent the odd ball from sliding between the legs; it is perhaps ugly even to the connoisseurs of the game, but it is a culmination of a nagging determination, street-smartness and efficiency.

“Dhoni’s technique might not be perfect but his plus point is his temperament and calmness which is very important for a wicketkeeper,” Reddy said. 

“He doesn’t get too hassled by a dropped catch. What happens with most young ’keepers is once they leave a catch, they get tensed whereas Dhoni keeps it very simple. Normally, there’s no feeling that he has dropped a catch. That is a very big plus point,” he added. 

The game is perpetually in a quandary, always evolving while lending itself to the vignettes of its subjects’ life. When Dhoni casually flicks the ball on to the stumps with his back still towards the batsman, that vignette turns a page.

It is flashy. It is cunning. And it is unexpected — a wicket-keeping parallel of an eccentric shot — this is Dhoni’s way of making a splash behind the stumps. The key to such a ‘freak’ run-out dismissal is the sharp peripheral vision of the ’keeper and the convenient positioning near the stumps. 

By not hovering with his gloves next to the wickets, Dhoni is able to hoodwink the batsman into thinking that he’s running towards the safe end when really, it is a tease that ultimately leads to the dressing room.

“I think it’s just Dhoni. I haven’t seen many ’keepers doing that. There’s no harm in trying it though,” Reddy said. 

His quirks and quiddities with the gloves, which are a tribute to the armed forces, are a testament to his furtive and incisive manoeuvres behind the stumps.

The run out of Mustafizur Rahman in the cliff-hanger of a match against Bangladesh in the ICC World T20 championship last year, in which Dhoni outsprinted the batsman, will forever remain a feather in the Indian wicket-keeper's cap. - K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

 

Even for a ’keeper with a total of 373 dismissals from 295 ODIs; 276 catches and 97 stumpings, Dhoni has been found wanting while standing back , especially in the swing-friendly conditions of England.

During India’s 2014 tour of England, he was guilty of letting many a ball pass between him and the first-slip. That he didn’t even go for those catches could be put down to the fact that Dhoni isn’t a great diver with the keeping gloves on.

Dhoni has drawn criticism before, for his reticent approach with the gloves especially in England but Reddy thinks, “Dhoni’s keeping has got better with age. But what happens with the Indian public is if he fails in one series then they forget all the 13 years he has put into this game. 

“I don’t think that is fair. You should give him a run and see if he’s good enough or not. Who’s the next person who is going to take his place? Give a second ’keeper a chance in a couple of matches with Dhoni playing as a batsman but they (selectors) don’t seem to be doing that.

“They are not looking at the future. India should’ve played (Rishabh) Pant in the West Indies series but he’s not playing, somebody else is. It doesn’t make sense.” However, Reddy reckons ‘stiffness’ could be one of the possible reasons behind Dhoni’s perceived troubles with glove work overseas. “In England, your movement has to be a little quicker because of the conditions. (But) I won’t say Dhoni is slow, in fact he’s a safe keeper.”

Reminiscing about the time he used to keep wickets to the celebrated spin trio of B. S. Chandrasekhar, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Bishan Bedi, Reddy said, “In those days, there used to be ropes to keep the net in balance. It used to peg the net to the ground so that it didn’t shift either way.”

“We used to tighten the ropes that came down to the ground and stand as far as we normally do for a batsman, and make somebody hit the rope with the ball. When it comes, it’s either a nick or like any other normal ball you gather. That’s how we practised back then.”

R. Sridhar had once remarked that in his time as India’s fielding coach, he had seen Dhoni practice his wicketkeeping skills ‘only thrice.’ Whether some practice in the nets would make for more perfection is up for debate, but he clearly doesn’t stretch himself to pluck a catch mid-air or display the athleticism shown by the current clique of ’keepers. Suffice to say, Dhoni’s hands leave a blazing trail, the feet not so much.

Meanwhile...

Bangladesh is on the cusp of causing a major upset at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru.

On strike is Shuvagata Hom. He needs two to down India, a single for a super over. Hardik Pandya has the ball. Dhoni is without his right glove. He is anticipating a bye, probably.

Pandya to Hom. It’s short and outside the off-stump. The batsman swings but misses!

Mustafizur Rahman at the other end doesn’t care. He is running. Dhoni is sprinting. It’s not cricket anymore. It’s a race to the finish. The slower one loses.

M. S. Dhoni reaches first. The stumps are shattered. 

He hangs on, albeit by a thread. 

Dhoni’s wicketkeeping is like that — a microcosm of inches and seconds — and India ought to enjoy every minute of it while it still can. 

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