No one beats Father Time, especially in sports, but two 37-year-olds are excelling in keeping him at bay. Roger Federer is for another day, this one is about Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The retirement word has been thrown around too often in his direction. That snap of the wrists, the bat-lift seem like vignettes of the past, but it is the unorthodoxy anchored in his style that smells like reinvention.
Before Virat Kohli's spellbinding ascent to chaser extraordinaire, Dhoni held the bragging rights to the tag in cricket's fandom. His ability to nonchalantly circumvent the so-called traditional logic and norms of run-chase left pundits searching for words, and fans swooning.
Friday evening's series-winning effort against Australia was yet another chance for fans to witness Dhoni (with large doses of luck in the two dropped catches) arrest a wobble, then take the contest deep into the innings before upping the ante just enough to carry the team home. With all the talk about Dhoni's waning powers, he continues to give the occasional glimpse of the breathtaking — the effortless ease with which he breaks a target down. It's not yesterday once more, but the opposition is aware he can explode at will.
The waiting game
In the final ODI, Dhoni could be seen speaking to the umpires about which bowler had how many overs left. Knowing which bowlers to go after and in which over is the trait of a good finisher. Dhoni has exhibited this acumen ever since he took over the mantle of captaincy in 2007.
His understanding of the situation meant both he and Kedar Jadhav played out Jhye Richardson and Adam Zampa, Australia's best bowlers of the night, without taking unnecessary risks. Even five successive dots in the 44th over didn't unsettle Dhoni.
Playing the waiting game, huffing and puffing to the finish line chasing a modest 230 with seven wickets in hand might seem like a bit of an unnecessary stretch, but as Dhoni said in the post-match presentation, "It was a slow wicket, hence it was a bit difficult to hit whenever you wanted to. It was important to take it to the end because some of their bowlers were on the verge of finishing their quota. No point going after the bowlers who were bowling well."
Dhoni and Jadhav's 116-ball 121-run unbeaten partnership was premised on this very nuanced understanding of the scorecard. Dhoni shepherds a middle-order that is big on the number of fours and sixes hit, but doesn't offer the same calmness that he does when it comes to steering the ship out of choppy waters.
It's a joy to have the 'hitman' Rohit Sharma and 'captain marvel' Virat Kohli at the top of the order. When they flow, the sight and results are stunning.
Lower down, the likes of Hardik Pandya and Jadhav can provide the thrust at the death with power hitting. All their heroics attract purple prose, but the World Cup in England will need a gritty pivot or two. Bowlers tend to have a larger say in the initial phase of a game in England, and this may throw up scenarios when the squad will need a pivot in the middle-order around which the other batsmen can base their innings.
Therefore, it's only prudent to judge Dhoni's knocks, in recent times, in the light of the team management's expectations of him. "People tend to stereotype players. Apart from hitting sixes, look at the other great things that Dhoni offers. He has the best seat in the house behind the wicket, looks at the angle and will be constantly advising the captain... that calm and composed temperament comes in handy," says Maharashtra coach Surendra Bhave.
"And the inspirational side... At this age, if he puts a hand on my shoulder and says, 'Suri bhai, aapko jaa ke run banane hai (you go out and make the runs),' I'm sure I'll go and try my best. Attaching him to only six-hitting is unfair to the guy," says Bhave, during whose time as national selector, Dhoni made rapid strides as skipper.
Coming to terms with the idea that different batting numbers merit a different approach has been Dhoni's mantra.
He also has his lightning-quick running between the wickets and the ability to keep the run rate in check (by his standards) even when the big hits have dried up. Both came in handy when India found itself struggling at 4 for 3 in the first ODI in Sydney.
"Dhoni's batting position depends on what he and Kohli feel... He batted beautifully on this trip," says Bhave. Dhoni's keeping skills, too, make him a valuable asset. While bowlers are busy devising new ways of catching a batsman unawares, Dhoni has his out-of-the-box methods.
Bharath Reddy, India’s wicketkeeper during the 1979 tour to England, has an interesting Dhoni observation. “I think he’s a better version of Rod Marsh — we used to call him ‘Iron Gloves’ — but Dhoni’s better according to me,” Reddy had told Sportstar last year.
Maestro in chasing
Another aspect that stands out for Dhoni is his average in successful ODI chases. His 87 off 114 balls in Melbourne took his average to 103.07, which is higher than even Kohli's 97.98. Kohli, of course, has many more tons and aggregate runs. In successful chases, Dhoni has 2783 runs in 73 innings, while Kohli has racked up 4899 runs in 78 innings.
Kohli, who is regarded as one of the best batsmen in the world across formats, made his debut under Dhoni in Sri Lanka in 2008. Suffice to say, Dhoni has had a lion's share in forging the limited-overs squad from the ground up, building up a better understanding of the players. Kohli understands Dhoni too. He dubbed Dhoni's half-century in the Adelaide win as an "MS Classic".
Dhoni commands immense respect in the team, head coach Ravi Shastri had shared during a chat with The Daily Telegraph . “He is great with the guys, they all worship him. This entire team has been built by him because he was captain for 10 years. To have that kind of respect in the dressing room and experience is massive,” said Shastri.
Dhoni isn't the suave finisher he once was, his big hits may not leave one scratching their heads in disbelief, but they are still enough to leave one wanting more. Don't write him off yet under the guise of fair criticism.
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