India's Mahendra Singh Dhoni gestures during the 2019 Cricket World Cup group stage match between Bangladesh and India at Edgbaston in Birmingham, central England, on July 2, 2019.(AFP)
India's Mahendra Singh Dhoni gestures during the 2019 Cricket World Cup group stage match between Bangladesh and India at Edgbaston in Birmingham, central England, on July 2, 2019.(AFP)

ICC World Cup 2019: Is Dhoni’s body listening to him?

Even with impressive stats to back him, MS Dhoni’s struggle to find rhythm has been palpable
By Ayaz Memon
UPDATED ON MAY 28, 2020 06:48 PM IST

For Indian fans, this past week has not entirely been easy going, despite the team making the World Cup semi-finals with a game still in hand. The debate over a “middle-order muddle’ continues to rage, and MS Dhoni’s patchy form has been a genuine concern.

I’ll come to Dhoni specifically later, but let’s look at what data tells us about middle order batsmen in the tournament, not just India.

Among the top 10 run getters in this World Cup so far, only one—Ben Stokes—is a middle order batsman, the rest being either openers (Rohit Sharma, David Warner, Aaron Finch and Jonny Bairstow) or one drop (Shakib Al-Hasan, Kane Williamson, Joe Root, Virat Kohli and Babar Azam).

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This is a pronounced skew, and when contextualised with how matches have unfolded, provides interesting insights and clues.

This tournament has not been as high scoring as anticipated. There has not been a single 400-plus total (397 by England v Afghanistan is the highest) contrary to the buzz that preceded the start of the World Cup. There have been only 23 scores in excess of 300 from 41 matches (at the time of writing this piece) and only four in excess of 350. Juxtapose this with the success of Nos 1, 2 and 3 mentioned earlier, and this shows that the middle order of most teams has not exactly flourished.

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This suggests that pitches have not played uniformly, but have become slower as a match progresses, making it difficult for stroke-play; bowlers too have used the pitches to the maximum, unleashing an assortment of variations, including slower ones and cutters.

For instance, against both India and New Zealand, England got off to a thunderous start, at one stage threatening to get to 375-plus, but finished well short in both games as the pitch lost pace. Australia, after a rousing century opening partnership against England, could manage only 285. India at one stage looked like they would reach at least 360 against Bangladesh, but finished with 315.

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A bulk of the runs in most matches have come within 30-35 overs (Morgan running amok against Afghanistan was a rarity), for as the ball’s got softer, batsmen have been finding it difficult to get their timing right.

This gets even more acute for the team batting second. As yet, only 13 times in 37 matches (with result achieved) has a score been chased successfully, and only once (Bangladesh v West Indies) from 7 innings when the target has been more than 300.

While it is impossible to reach hard conclusions from this data this does highlight the pressure middle order batsmen have faced. It also explains why teams have either experimented with players or batting positions.

Among leading teams, Australia has played Steve Smith at No 3 and 4, Usman Khwaja usually at 3, but also 5. Against New Zealand, England’s Joss Buttler was pushed up from 6 to 4, and India have shuffled numbers 4-7 regularly.

Of course, batting positions from No 3 downwards in limited overs cricket are not rigidly defined. Flexibility is the key, depending on the trend of play and opponents.

Yet, the extent of churn suggests all teams see the middle order as vulnerable. In India’s case, this has been a matter of debate—and anguish—for reasons mentioned at the start, but the frequency of changes has been decided for two strong cricketing reasons.

One, injury to Shikhar Dhawan forced K L Rahul, who was shaping up well in the middle order, to open, leaving a void at No 4. Vijay Shankar, who was drafted into this position, then got injured, complicating matters, and others have not clicked as desired.

Second, in most matches (let’s not forget, India have lost only one so far), the changes have been to accelerate scoring. This may or may not have worked, but the thinking was not unsound. Which brings me to Dhoni, who will turn 38 on Sunday.

In the World Cup, Dhoni comes up with surprisingly good stats: 223 runs (fourth for India behind Sharma, Kohli and Rahul) at 44.60 and a strike rate of 93. At face value, these are impressive figures. But data without context can be misleading—Dhoni’s batting against England was unedifying, although the measured approach against Bangladesh was prudent; it took the score past 300 and the plucky Bangladeshis were kept at bay.

Dhoni’s struggle for rhythm and top form, however, has been palpable. From the “multi-taskers”, Shakib has been in a zone of his own. Stokes has played with panache, Neesham has been a revelation, Pandya’s ebullience has made a great impact. Even among wicket-keeper-batsmen, Alex Carey’s flair and temerity with the bat and assured glovework has left Dhoni with some catching up to do.

Advancing years have obviously hampered some of his prowess. In this tournament, age has been unkind to quite a few stars. Match-winners Chris Gayle and Hashim Amla, for instance, have looked pale shadows of themselves. World Cup history throws up a mixed bag for senior players. Wasim Akram, who bowled sensationally in the 1992 final, was half the bowler in 2003. Javed Miandad, whose perky batting made him arguably the most dangerous opponent in his pomp, huffed and puffed his way as a 39-year-old in the 1996 World Cup. But then there was also a 39-year-old Imran Khan, whose solid batting and inspiring presence led Pakistan to a win in 1992, and a 38-year-old Sachin Tendulkar, who was close to his best touch in 2011.

It’s not about intensity or ambition, which undoubtedly Dhoni still has, or indeed cricketing acumen, which is unquestionable. The issue really is whether his body can still respond to messages from his mind to take up situational challenges in a match and perform at his best.

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