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Maverick Dhoni playing it safe

With the exception of the drab draw at SSC, the India-Sri Lanka Test series produced some high-quality cricket - Murali weaving his magic, Malinga making the ball talk, Sehwag taking the attack to the opposition, Sachin's resilience and Laxman's match-winning innings are just a few. Aakash Chopra writes.

india Updated: Aug 08, 2010 23:40 IST

With the exception of the drab draw at SSC, the India-Sri Lanka Test series produced some high-quality cricket - Murali weaving his magic, Malinga making the ball talk, Sehwag taking the attack to the opposition, Sachin's resilience and Laxman's match-winning innings are just a few.

While these exhibitions will keep critics at bay for a while, another aspect of the game has sprung up to be a potential alarm for both sides. It was the quality of leadership, or the lack of it, from both Dhoni and Sanga that is worth looking at.

Let's go backwards. While an exceptional knock from Laxman sealed the day, Sanga's tactics were baffling. He started the day by having four men on the fence even when Ishant was on strike. Then he had both long-on and long-off on the fence for Laxman, knowing that Laxman rarely takes the aerial route. And how can you explain not having a slip for Mendis when only wickets could win the match?

If Sangakkara bungled, Dhoni too was defensive. Yes, he was impaired in the bowling department, but that's when you need to take the initiative. A good captain can make an ordinary line-up efficient. Instead of gambling with an extra bowler, he took the safer option. Then we repeatedly saw field placements for bad balls. How else can you explain a deep-point in the first over of the match? How can you explain not having a slip in place when Sri Lanka needed only a handful to win the first Test?

The real test of a captain's skills is to lead a depleted unit. Steve Waugh didn't have to be imaginative with fielding positions and bowling changes. Whenever he needed a breakthrough, he just threw the ball to Warne or McGrath, or both.

But when you have to deal with the likes of Mithun, Ishant and Ojha, you need to make them look more effective by employing different strategies with smart field positions. A good captain is not as good as his team, but one who makes the team punch above its weight.

Dhoni's USP has been the ability to think out-of-the-box and willingness to punt. The defining moment in his captaincy was when he picked rookie Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over of the T20 World Cup in 2007. Captaincy is a lot about instinct and having the guts to go with the feeling. Dhoni showed both, but if he abandons it for safety, which he seems to be doing, he will cease to be the maverick captain we all believe he is.