Power play

Dhoni is not someone Indian cricket stumbled upon by chance. He is a product of the system. He rose through the ranks and then tasted international competition on the `A' tours, writes S. DINAKAR

BOLD strokes on the canvas. Splashes of colour. The spirit of celebration. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's batting is all that and more.

The marauder with the long mane has the instinct of an adventurer; galloping past the barriers, winning battles and duels. A natural riding on his skills. And conquering.

Dhoni provides the side with depth and options. While he can blaze away, there is also an unmistakable touch of solidity to his ways. He makes things happen. Does not wait for the events to unfold. He is a star... could turn a Super Star.

Dhoni is also a cricketer India has sought for long. He gives the team management flexibility in tactics. A deadly floater in the line-up, the Jharkhand lad can decimate attacks upfront. Or he could surface at No. 6 and lend considerable weight to this vital slot between the top and the bottom half.

On the sub-continental wickets, he could be the destroyer in the early overs. On overseas pitches with bounce and seam movement, he would be of better value to the side down the order. This is not an adverse comment on his methods — for a batsman of explosive ways he has a reasonable technique — but attempting to make the most of his astonishing ability. He dents the opposition psychologically. They are forced to change game plans. The rival skippers switch from an attacking mode to a defensive one and there is a turnaround in the contest.

When he strode in at Jaipur, the Sri Lankans were sniffing victory. Dhoni's sixes over covers off the crafty Chaminda Vaas were not just two incredible blows. For his team-mates watching from the dressing room, they were a huge morale booster.

Importantly, he leaves the field scattered. Someone like Dhoni also has the opposing captain thinking about the timing of the Power Play overs. If he surfaces down the order and if the Power Play overs remain, then the fielding side could be chasing leather for most part. If he walks in at the top of the order, then the captain might delay using the second and third blocks which could benefit the batsmen down the order.

Indeed, Dhoni makes things easier for the man at the other end. The bowling side needs to apply pressure from both ends to make serious inroads. If the runs start flowing from one end, then the batsman at the other end is under less stress. In fact, he could cruise along, watching Dhoni destroying the bowling. Dhoni's thundering blows ensure that the run-rate would only move in an upward curve; even if the side loses wickets, it will always have a chance to recover since the run-rate has not slumped.

With Hurricane Dhoni taking the centre stage, India gets its fourth aggressive match-winning batsmen — Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh being the others. Each one of them can change the course of a game in a hurry. Add to this the solidity of skipper Rahul Dravid — he has also evolved into a fine finisher in the end overs — and the enterprise of the quick thinking, hard running Mohammed Kaif and India, perhaps, has the most dangerous ODI batting line-up in present day cricket.

These men are followed by the likes of Suresh Raina, Irfan Pathan, and Jai Prakash Yadav. Two factors have swung things in India's favour as it has finally found the batting depth it had always sought. The super substitute rule has meant India, if it gets its choice right, can have an extra batsman on the chase. The talented Raina made a huge difference in Pune. And a Dhoni, who would walk into any ODI side as a specialist batsman, saves a place for the team. India thus has two extra cricketers pulling their weight in the side. No wonder, the Men in Blue are on a winning streak.

These are the early days of Dhoni's career and it would be unfair to indulge in comparisons. Adam Gilchrist is the foremost wicket-keeper batsman in present day cricket. A cricketer who has managed to change a facet of the game, a cricketer who is a legend.

Expectations can be a burden. They can also be a great motivator. It depends on how a cricketer looks at the pressures of performing — in Dhoni's case plundering runs from the bowlers of the world and keeping adequately — and responds to the challenge. Physically, Dhoni is strong. He has also shown us that he has the mental attributes. Both these qualities were visible in Jaipur during his epic 183 not out. His batting was loaded with power. That he batted on despite cramps showed us his resilience. Earlier, he had kept wickets for 50 overs. He didn't wilt.

He has also been able to adapt to different situations. For when he went in at the No. 6 slot in Pune, he displayed a different approach although he ended it all with two booming sixers. Dhoni kept in his mind the demands of the situation. This is a good sign in the young cricketer.

Dhoni's confidence points to his self-belief. He backs himself to succeed. It's not uncommon to watch him giving the charge to the pacemen. In the process, he is also sending out a message that says `I am the boss'.

As his career progresses, he will surely be tested more. Like the bowlers, batsmen get sorted out. We are in the age of video analysis where every aspect of a cricketer is dissected. Dhoni will come under the scanner as teams chart out strategies to get rid of him.

For instance, he could face a barrage of short-pitched deliveries if he makes it to the Test eleven. How Dhoni will cope with such tactics in the longer version of the game remains to be seen. The selectors have a tough call to make when they pick the side for the first Test against the islanders in December. Dhoni has the wind and the momentum behind him, while Dinesh Kaarthick has not performed badly at all.

Kaarthick is an improving wicket-keeper and a compact little batsman who has fared well in tough situations. He was named one of the Emerging Players in the ICC's list of annual awards. It would be harsh to dump him straightaway. A better idea would be to accommodate Dhoni as the second keeper and a reserve batsman, if the need arises. This way justice could be done to both the youngsters. Dhoni too could get a feel of Test cricket from beyond the boundary before actually stepping in — in case Kaarthick stumbles.

Chairman of the selection panel Kiran More has been a respected wicket-keeper-batsman himself. In the days ahead he and his colleagues will be grappling with a hard decision. More chose to see the brighter side. "Not long ago, we had a problem with wicket-keeper-batsmen. Now we have options. I think it is a happy situation to be in. Competition will enable these young boys improve even more. What more can Indian cricket ask for?" Dhoni has been working on his wicket-keeping. He had an ordinary time behind the stumps in the season-beginning triangular ODI competition in Sri Lanka. In fact, that was a series where he often fumbled with regulation gatherings.

His keeping has taken a turn for the better since. A better indicator of his calibre would be his work while standing up to Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh in a Test match situation. Spinners often do not display all their tricks in the ODI format, where the restriction of runs is the key.

Back to Dhoni's batting. It is not easy setting a field for him. He can strike the ball with ferocity through the gaps. He can hit over the infield. He has strokes on both sides of the wicket. And he can clear the ground with ease.

Dhoni is also a smart cricketer. During those rare occasions when the boundaries are hard to come by, he picks his singles by driving in the `V', which is the right way to milk the bowling. He is able to pick the length of the ball early, and has that extra split second to get into the right position. His body balance cannot be faulted; his hand-eye coordination is out of the ordinary.

This cricketer is no accident, not someone Indian cricket stumbled upon by chance. Dhoni is a product of the system. He rose through the ranks and then tasted international competition on the `A' tours. He impressed with, both, his attitude and aggression. Gradually the doors to big-time cricket opened.

His strokes travel long and hard, his popularity has soared. He is already the most sought after cricketer on the current tour. Dhoni is being mobbed while bigger names walk alongside him. He is being flooded with endorsements. How he handles success could hold the key to his future. It is not easy being a simple boy from Ranchi one moment, and a celebrity the next.

Off the arena, he appears a modest, soft-spoken lad, on whom success sits lightly. He has a charming smile and eyes that reflect sincerity. On the arena, his aggression comes through strongly. And his persona undergoes a dramatic transformation.

Dhoni is an entertainer. There will be days when he comes unstuck. But when he sizzles, he will win matches for the country. He is, indeed, a rarity.