The poster boy comes of age

S. SUBRAMANIUM

M. S. Dhoni's ability is immense. He can generate extreme power with his wristwork and bat speed, dumping good deliveries into the stands. He now seeks to use his aggression judiciously, improve stroke-selection. He no longer wants to be ruled by impulse, writes S. Dinakar.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has realised cricket can be a rough ride. The dasher is now prepared to play the waiting game. Cricketers do evolve.

The trick for Dhoni would be to make the transition without compromising on flair. If his responsible, unbeaten 91 in the first ODI against Bangladesh at Mirpur is any indication, Dhoni is finding the right mix. Patience pays in moments of crisis.

Dhoni's ability is immense. He can generate extreme power with his wristwork and bat speed, dumping good deliveries into the stands. He now seeks to use his aggression judiciously, improve stroke-selection. He no longer wants to be ruled by impulse.

"There are times when you return to the pavilion and wonder whether a particular shot was the right option for the situation. You then learn," he said.

The ill-advised cut stroke against Bangladesh in the World Cup — Dhoni had not yet opened his account then — hastened the Indian collapse. It was a situation when India required tact and runs from Dhoni.

The early dismissal also put Dhoni under enormous pressure when India took on Sri Lanka in a perform-or-perish game. His response was a tentative nothing shot when Muttiah Muralitharan sent down a quicker one from round the wicket. He was rooted to his back-foot, with disastrous consequences. Once again Dhoni did not trouble the scorers.

Worse, India was out of the tournament.

The fans back home, predictably, reacted with anger. The pre-competition hype meant the expectations were high and Dhoni, the poster boy, shouldered much of the burden.

The image of Dhoni and Virender Sehwag being rushed out of the airport on arrival from the Caribbean showed the flip side of celebrity status. For Dhoni and his team-mates, this was a reality check.

In a senseless act, one of Dhoni's properties in Ranchi was damaged by an unruly mob. His long mane and smiling visage were, at least temporarily, off the tube. These were tough times for Dhoni.

In this context, the ODI series triumph in Bangladesh, and Dhoni's re-emergence hold much significance for India in what should be a demanding season dotted with away duels. However, considering that Bangladesh is still a lesser-ranked side, India has to approach the days ahead with caution. The rebuilding process, following the World Cup debacle, has to continue.

Crucially, the think tank sent Dhoni at the pivotal No. 3 position in Bangladesh, a slot where he can construct an innings. The logic behind the move made sense. If a natural stroke-maker such as Dhoni gets to face more overs, the team could only gain. He would also get an opportunity to pace his innings. Match-winners come rare.

In fact, two of Dhoni's finest displays with the willow — the blistering 148 against Pakistan in Visakhapatnam and the electric183 not out at the expense of the Sri Lankan attack in Jaipur (both in 2005) — were achieved after he had walked in at No. 3 (he averages 75.62 from 10 innings at this slot).

He was subsequently pushed down the order. If Dhoni was disappointed, his words certainly did not reflect his feelings. "Perhaps the side needs someone at No. 6 or 7 to clear the field when the ball becomes soft, when the field restrictions are not in place. More than numbers, I think about contribution," he pointed out.

On the sub-continent pitches, Dhoni adds value to side at No. 3. He can clear the infield during the Power Play overs and then build monuments. He innovates and creates.

However, in conditions favouring swing and seam movement, the think-tank might have to reassess Dhoni's slot. Deliveries leaving Dhoni tend to open him up, and he does not get his left foot across to the desired extent while essaying the drives. Consequently, he plays away from his body.

Dhoni, 25, has the chance to tighten his game though. His response to some hostile bowling on tracks with seam movement and bounce in South Africa last season was courageous. Dhoni put a price on his wicket, got behind the line, hooked and pulled off his face. Graeme Smith's men targeted him, but eventually Dhoni earned the respect of his adversary. "Dhoni has guts," admitted Smith.

In the Faisalabad Test last year, Dhoni, peppered with short-pitched bowling during a scorching spell from Shoaib Akhtar, cut, pulled and punched off the back foot to a heroic match-saving century. Rahul Dravid hailed the effort as "one of the greatest counter-attacking innings I have seen."

The India skipper, however, was not always pleased with Dhoni's methods. After a confident-looking Dhoni perished to a loose shot at the stroke of tea on the final day of the Durban Test, which India was striving to save, Dravid remarked, "He (Dhoni) needs to read situations better."

At Mirpur, Dhoni, rightly, stroked in front of the wicket in the early phase, resisting the temptation to open the face of the blade. Given his attributes, he can always accelerate.

Interestingly, the presence of Dinesh Karthik in the XI could ease the wicket-keeping load on Dhoni. Ravi Shastri, India's cricket manager on the tour of Bangladesh, has said the two could share wicket-keeping duties during an innings if the need arose.

Karthik's solidity, technical correctness, and the ability to work the ball around with the willow have impacted Dhoni in a manner that is positive. The two share a symbiotic relationship. Dhoni, like Karthik, is an improved 'keeper.

Dhoni is also someone close to his roots, comprehends the value of respect and has not been corrupted by endorsements or money. Queried about his popularity once, he replied, "It puts more responsibility on you."

The small-town lad with big dreams — Dhoni's journey from Jharkhand to the centre-stage of Indian cricket has been a remarkable one — with passion for soft music and fast bikes remains a simple individual flashing a ready smile. On the field, he continues to walk, indicating his integrity.

The walker could be galloping again... but watchfully.