MS Dhoni: Not of old, but a saviour nonetheless
“If you are not 100% fit and not at your best, it’s cheating.” MS Dhoni had said this when the buck used to stop with him in Indian cricket.
For nearly a decade after the 2007 T20 World Cup win, Dhoni was Chennai Super King’s “Thala” and the game’s most cerebral international captain. He won India a Champions Trophy and the World Cup but it was those 14-15 games in CSK’s yellow shirt every year that fuelled Dhoni’s legacy and longevity.
The last few years though were a reminder of Dhoni’s physical limitations. His mind was still working at a higher level than most. But the reflexes had started failing him. He was skeptical going for the wide catches, taking more balls to settle and was getting beaten more often. By his own assessment, this would be “cheating”.
Dhoni’s chasing game was always a mathematical possibility thriving on proper rotation of strike punctuated by timely boundaries and sixes. But he wasn’t hitting them as often as he would have liked to.
Last IPL, Dhoni hit seven sixes, his lowest IPL haul ever. This year, he has just hit three. The current IPL has been particularly difficult for Dhoni. His strike rate and average have plummeted to unprecedented levels; the ball isn’t piercing the gaps anymore and he looked a shade of the man who made finishing games his business. Till he did it again, turning back the clock on Sunday and taking CSK to another IPL final by scoring 12 in three balls. What did he do differently? Nothing.
“Watch the ball, hit the ball,” he said on Sunday. “I have not done a lot in the tournament. So I had to get that out of the system, saying if you’re batting well in the nets just look for the ball, what are the variations, what the bowler may look to bowl. So other than that there was nothing much in the mind because if there are too many things floating around it becomes difficult to watch the ball.”
Dhoni knows the nature of the game is such that one fine innings can’t even out the poor averages and strike rates. Sunday’s win was special but it will not suddenly change the reality check Dhoni has had to face. And since it’s quite likely that Dhoni may not play long after this season, it’s a good time to wonder how good he was with the bat in the IPL.
Like with everything about Dhoni, it’s complicated. With averages of 25 and 16.28 and strike rates of 116.27 and 106.54, there is no doubt 2020 and 2021 have been the worst seasons for Dhoni. But it’s also important to note Dhoni hasn’t batted as long as in the previous seasons. In 2021, he has faced 107 balls in 11 innings so far but in 2019, it was 309 balls in 12 innings. That season, Dhoni scored 416 runs, hit a highest score of 84*, averaged 83.2 with a strike rate of 134.62. The more time Dhoni spends at the crease, the better he scores.
Dhoni was unbeaten in 25 successful IPL chases before Sunday, with a strike rate of 153.6. His 20th over stats in successful chases are even more captivating: 149 runs in 49 balls and a strike rate of 304. Dhoni’s best chase years came in 2014 (six times unbeaten in a successful chase) and 2018 (four times unbeaten), the latter witnessing that timeless innings of 70 off 34 balls against Royal Challengers Bangalore in a high-octane chase of 205 at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. That innings, Dhoni finished with a strike rate of 205.88, his highest ever in a winning chase. CSK won the championship that season, and Dhoni ended with 455 runs and a strike rate of 150.66, his second best numbers ever across the IPL.
But it isn’t easy being Dhoni all the time. That he keeps wickets—easily the most physically straining duty on field—is often forgotten. And as he grew into the IPL, Dhoni also took it upon himself to finish every chase.
The bulk of Dhoni’s innings (44) in successful chases came at No 4, 5 and 6, corresponding strike rates for which are 140, 127 and 132. As much as it throws light on how Dhoni becomes a more cautious chaser as he goes from No 4 to 6, it also is a reminder of the unpredictability at the other end. Very few batters (barring Ravindra Jadeja or Dwayne Bravo maybe) have the same frequency as Dhoni so he tries to factor in that by modifying the pace of his chase. Some worked. Some didn’t. And while it proved time and again results can’t be carved out individually but only by a consolidated team effort, Dhoni tries nevertheless.
Incidentally, three of his best death-overs strike rates in chases came in the seasons CSK won the IPL—170.8 in 2010, 240 in 2011 and 193.4 in 2018.
That Dhoni bats more freely when CSK aren’t chasing is overwhelmingly proved by his strike rates in the death overs. It’s an extension of his approach to batting in ODIs where Dhoni had a strike rate of 92.8 in the first innings at No 5-7 but 77.8 when he chased. His overall ODI stats too aren’t different—94.33 batting first as opposed to 80.5 chasing—with a significant gap in boundaries and sixes (477 fours and 141 sixes in 152 first innings but 349 fours and 88 sixes in 145 second innings).
Dhoni’s reputation to finish basically hinged on his ability to rotate the strike and close out the game in the last 10 or five overs in ODIs. In T20s, it translates to the last two overs. That Dhoni still wields the power to finish a T20 game in his 21st season of competitive cricket is a miracle in itself.