A man for crisis

It will be hard for India to find a multi-dimensional cricketer like Dhoni. He was an ‘impact’ cricketer with the equanimity of a monk, writes S. Dinakar.

He could be explosive with the willow in Tests, or rotate the strike cleverly and run hard. In crises, he would often put his hand up for the side. At No. 6 or No. 7, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was a batsman the bowlers wanted to avoid in certain conditions.

There were times when Dhoni appeared vulnerable too. His method of playing away from the body against the moving ball often led to his downfall outside the sub-continent. Dhoni’s footwork was ordinary on some pitches, but he made up somewhat with his heart and hand-eye coordination. He was never daunted by reputations.

Actually, Dhoni’s numbers in England — 778 runs from 12 Tests at 37.04 — are quite creditable. For a side desperately in search of a safe wicketkeeper who could add depth to the batting, Dhoni was as valuable as they come.

His Test figures in batting — 4876 runs in 90 matches at 38.09 — are better than that of several specialist batsmen. His away record of 2496 runs in 48 Tests at 32.84 cannot be scoffed at either.

Talk of Dhoni’s batting, and he will forever be remembered for two spectacular innings. His 148 against Pakistan in Faisalabad in 2006 was all about courage. India was in trouble and Shoaib Akhtar was in the midst of one of his fastest spells, as the home crowd in a packed stadium egged the pace spearhead on. It was a cauldron in every sense.

Before the innings, there were apprehensions about Dhoni’s ability to cope with short-pitched deliveries from the fast bowlers. In fact, when he was troubled early on by a couple of lifters from Akhtar, there was laughter in a section of the press box.

Then everything changed. Dhoni gave a stunned Akhtar the charge and smashed him through cover and then whacked the fast bowler straight. When Akhtar bounced, Dhoni hooked and pulled him. The Indian continued to disrupt the Pakistani paceman’s length by walking down the track. The audacious onslaught took one’s breath away.

The innings was both inspiring and brave. Later, India captain Rahul Dravid said it was the finest attacking innings he had seen in Tests.

India did well in the match and Dhoni was the toast. This was a breakthrough innings for him.

Then, Dhoni’s epic 224 against Australia in crisis at Chepauk (2013) has to be rated among the top aggressive innings played in India. The pitch was offering substantial turn for the Australian off-spinner, Nathan Lyon, when Dhoni walked in. India was under enormous pressure. With a calm mind and employing his powerful yet dexterous wrists, Dhoni hit Lyon out of the attack in a sensational innings.

There were powerful sweeps, booming hits over long-off and long-on, and weighty blows through mid-wicket and covers. Such was Dhoni’s blitzkrieg that the Aussies did not quite comprehend what hit them. The knock was a Test-winning masterpiece.

Although Dhoni never quite proved to be the same marauder away from the sub-continent, he continued to come up with substantial contributions: a 92 at The Oval, a 90 at Centurion and a brace of half-centuries in Birmingham were some of Dhoni’s better efforts.

However, Dhoni’s record in Australia — 311 runs in nine Tests at 19.43 — would disappoint the man. Dhoni was largely a batsman-wicketkeeper, but his glove-work often backed the bowlers in tight situations. Save the last phase of his Test career, Dhoni held on to most catches and effected some smart stumpings.

He may not have satisfied the purists with his sideways movements and the quality of his ‘takes’, but Dhoni had good reflexes, and he anticipated well.

For someone who was not a natural, Dhoni kept wickets capably to Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and later on Ravichandran Ashwin. Standing up, he held his own.

Here credit must be given to former India coach Greg Chappell, who focussed on improving Dhoni’s ’keeping during the tour of Pakistan in 2006.

Crucially, Dhoni possessed the strength to survive in a role that is demanding, both physically and mentally. He held on to snicks even at the fag end of a long, hot and tiring day. He has the highest number of victims — 256 catches and 38 stumpings — by an Indian wicketkeeper in Tests. Despite struggling physically, Dhoni was involved in nine dismissals in his final Test at the MCG.

Injuries took their toll though, and on the Australian tour, Dhoni did have trouble going for catches in front of first slip. He decided it was time to leave.

It will be hard for India to find a multi-dimensional cricketer like Dhoni. He was an ‘impact’ cricketer with the equanimity of a monk.