Out of time Dhoni — can he turn the clock back?

There’s no denying that his career has reached its last leg. Speculation is rife. The snap of the wrists, the bat-lift, might all seem like vignettes of the past for now but it is the unorthodoxy anchored in his style that fuels revival hopes.

As a batsman, M. S. Dhoni has always maintained the balance between attack and defence.   -  AP

After two and a half hours of absorbing Twenty20 cricket, Pune is within striking distance of breaking down a big total. It is currently last in the points table though, and this imbues the chase with an element of uncertainty. Only twice before has a team chased down a target in excess of 177 against the defending champion, Sunrisers Hyderabad.

Yet that night, between a heist and a botched chase, stands M. S. Dhoni.

He had you covered on another day. But at Pune’s MCA Stadium, with four required off two deliveries, the doubting Thomases raise their heads. Sunrisers Hyderabad pacer Mohammad Siraj has the ball. Dhoni is unfazed, at least from the outside.

Here is a batsman who has made a career out of ruining bowling figures at the death. As Dhoni takes a stroll down the wicket, punches the gloves and gets his game face on, the scorecard becomes irrelevant. This is his moment. With all the talk about his batting struggles, whatever happens next will be a telling tale of one man’s public redemption.

As Siraj drops a length ball on the middle stump, the former Pune captain clears his front foot out of the way, and essays a textbook drive. Rising Pune has sealed a six-wicket victory over Hyderabad, and ice-cool Dhoni’s bread and butter shift is over. No nerves shredded, no sweat broken.

This was the 15th time Dhoni had remained not out during a successful run chase in the IPL. No one who has followed the IPL long enough will ever forget Dhoni’s heroics against Kings XI Punjab in 2010, when, as captain of Chennai Super Kings (CSK), he blasted 16 runs in the last over, to propel his team into the semifinals.

READ: The Dhoni crawl

Kings XI held the upper hand for most part of the match, but against an upbeat Irfan Pathan in the last over, Dhoni’s willow walloped two back-to-back sixes for a stunning victory. As the cool skipper let out an uncharacteristic roar and punched the side of his helmet, the moment became an abiding memory of his dominance as a finisher.

That was 2010 though, and seven years is a long time in any sport. Somewhere between poise and bravado, somewhere between alertness and nonchalance, lies the cricketing nous of Dhoni, caught between brain and brawn.

Finishing problems

In a recent ODI match in Antigua, against a weak West Indies outfit, Dhoni’s unbeaten 78 off 79 balls on a tough track helped India to an eventually winning target of 251.

“It’s like wine,” he quipped when asked how he kept getting better with age. Even for someone who has a way with words, the timing of the response didn’t go amiss.

Over the next few days, Dhoni limped his way to fifty off 108 balls against the same opposition — the slowest by any Indian batsman in ODIs in the last 16 years — as Kohli’s men slumped to an embarrassing defeat in a low-scoring thriller.

There has been an element of inconsistency in Dhoni’s form lately. That fabled finishing prowess has been on a steady decline. In July 2016, against an unheralded Zimbabwe, India needed 8 off 6 balls, but the then India captain failed to score, as the Men in Blue slipped to a shocking two-run defeat. A month later, Dhoni’s image of a finisher took another beating, when India, chasing a mammoth 246 in a T20 match against West Indies at Lauderdale, lost by one run, with Dhoni being dismissed off the final delivery.

His safety-first attitude has drawn a lot of flak lately. The big hits have grown less frequent; judgement of length, more error prone. There’s a certain languor to Dhoni’s game now.

Just before the start of the 2015 ICC cricket World Cup in Australia, the wicketkeeper-batsman had gone 27 matches without a Man-of-the-Match award. The only trademark Dhoni finish before the World Cup, that stood out, came in July 2013 in the Caribbean, when he went on a one-on-one with Sri Lankan fast bowler Shaminda Eranga in the last over and won the match.

Absorbing the pressure was the key then, something that has become an exception rather than the rule with Dhoni’s batting these days.

When he assumed the mantle of captaincy in 2008, Indian cricket was in transition. Leading a mix of young and experienced campaigners, Dhoni took up residence at No. 6, to provide the necessary late thrust at the back end of an innings. In a career spanning over 295 ODIs, Dhoni has mastered the No. 6 slot with an aggregate of 3626 runs at an average of 45.32. The 26 half-centuries and one century batting at the position underlined the authoritative and influential nature of his game.

What makes him stand out is his staggering average of 56.50 and the 11 half-centuries in matches where India has finished on the winning side. But by his own admission, given the nature of cricket in the subcontinent, lower-order batsmen have fewer opportunities to get used to the pressure of finishing games.

The game is extremely premeditated lower down the order, with batsmen having to resort to leather-whacking, depending on the stage of the innings.

In his illustrious limited-overs career so far, Dhoni has batted at No. 4 in only 26 matches, and raised 1223 runs at 58.23 with 11 half-centuries and one century. An average of 77.46 in 18 matches when India came out trumps, however, is indicative that the former India captain could find his groove at the top of the order.

Dhoni though, over the years, has taken a liking to the waiting game. Watching an M.S. knock, its value to the situation of the match notwithstanding, has become an exercise in finding right pieces in a puzzle. Eventually it all falls into place.

There has been an element of inconsistency in Dhoni’s form lately.   -  AP

 

Perhaps this is the vortex of the problem. He has become a victim of his own legend, stuck in the endless loop of waiting to such an extent that he falls prey to his own stubbornness. It has started to impede the natural flow of his game which once made him one of the most dangerous batters in world cricket.

An evolving game

The ball, these days, leaps over his shoulder before he can swivel a pull. The game around him has evolved; bowlers have warmed up to his tactics, captains have sensed the vulnerability. The pressure has weakened his riposte.

In the recent bilateral series against West Indies, the opposition bowlers tried to bowl one length more than any other against Dhoni — full and around the fifth-stump channel. Even in his heyday, he struggled against that particular length but now, he could barely get the ball past the inner circle — the sense of discomfort was palpable. The ball found the bottom half of the willow more than the middle; the intent was there, but the execution nowhere up to the mark.

M.S. doesn’t play the ‘dilscoop’, paddle sweeps are far and few, a switch-hit doesn't quite find a place in his repertoire and the helicopter shot — the quintessential Dhoni — has become an aberration now.

In times of innovation, where bowlers seem to be thriving on a variety of deliveries — back-of-the-hand slower ball, slower ball bouncer, knuckle ball etc., the batsmen ought to employ different strokes, sometimes think on their feet even, to tune up the game.

However, Dhoni’s batting has come to a point where he has been found wanting in that department, or has he?

The last-over reputation

For Dhoni, the last over of a match came with a license to go for the jugular. He was a chess piece, but inside the boxing ring — the knight, moving forensically and the bowler, a pawn. As the challenge reached its denouement, the knight disdainfully struck out the pawn and conquered the castle. No half measures.

As a batsman, he has always maintained the balance between attack and defence. In his halcyon days, even the yorker length deliveries used to disappear into the stands. Standing deep inside the crease, he watched the toe-crusher closely, as it zeroed in at the base of his stump, before a lusty short arm jab interrupted its trajectory, and sent the ball flying over the cow corner.

After a match-winning knock in the IPL this year, Dhoni had said, “Frankly in modern-day cricket, there’s no run-rate which is too high. It depends on the execution of the bowlers. What matters is if you can put pressure on the opposition bowlers and then it boils down to who handles pressure well.”

The quote offered a peek into his cricketing brain. Dhoni has always been able to trust his instincts, the method and ploy have followed suit. To him, cricket isn’t a feud between bat and ball. It is a psychological warfare, and he’s locked in a mental battle with the bowler. The first to blink loses.

The last-over heroics though, are just one part of the larger narrative. Dhoni has always relished the challenge to step up in crunch games. A prudent approach towards batting has been a hallmark of his cricket and alongwith great match awareness, M.S. has lent himself to a template — so scrupulously carved in hard-fought competition and nerves of steel — that it has become synonymous with the character of its practitioner.

The swansong?

There’s no denying that his career has reached its last leg. Speculation is rife. The batting — clinical in conception and hard-hitting in execution — has failed to deliver recently. The snap of the wrists, the bat-lift, might all seem like vignettes of the past for now but it is the unorthodoxy anchored in his style that fuels revival hopes.

The 35-year-old is arguably one of the fittest athletes in international cricket today, and quick as lightning behind the stumps. And with the 2019 ICC World Cup still two years away, the jury is out on whether India’s most successful ODI captain will feature in the squad when the marquee event gets underway in England.

Meanwhile, rumours of an apparent rift between captain Virat Kohli and former coach Anil Kumble have already cast a shadow of doubt over the state of camaraderie within the team and the presence of a level-headed player such as Dhoni in the dressing room will only help ameliorate the tension.

He has always been a showman on the field — the winning six over long-on in the final of the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup or the gamble of throwing the ball to lesser-known Joginder Sharma in a World Twenty20 final — the sense of occasion never escapes him.

With time running out for Dhoni, who is wrestling to justify his position in India’s limited overs squad, the possibility that he can indeed turn the clock back cannot be ruled out, yet.