World Cup 2019: After chase fades, we need to talk about MS Dhoni
MS Dhoni always walks in to bat amid a roar of approval reserved for South American revolutionaries. Maybe the fans in the stands remember the young, swashbuckling Dhoni—him of the golden-mane fame, who eventually trimmed his hair but not his reputation to finish cricket matches on his blade. Or, maybe the fans have accepted who Dhoni the batsman has become over the last few seasons—the pragmatic accumulator of choppy runs; gritty and granular runs akin to the white five-o’clock shadow on his chin.
Sachin Tendulkar got, and Virat Kohli continues to receive, great welcomes too. But with Dhoni the reception en route to the crease is different; the cheer is less a welcome and more a celebration.
On Sunday, the terraces of Edgbaston too went bananas when Dhoni made his way out to the middle and Dhoni did his best to ignore it. Long strides took him faster towards the pitch, a thumb wiped a bead of sweat from his eyebrow and then he punched Hardik Pandya’s waiting fist.
At this point, India needed 112 runs from 65 balls. But Dhoni would only get strike with 104 runs needed off 61 deliveries; basically, a ball before the start of the death overs, a period of play once synonymous with Dhoni’s excellence.
That ball, bowled by Liam Plunkett, was a touch short of length and outside Dhoni’s off-stump. And he shouldered arms, bat stationed above his helmet, and let the ball sail by. It was a sign of things to come.
From the last 10 overs, India needed 104 runs—a fairly regular day in the IPL offices of Dhoni and Pandya, franchise-cricket legends with six titles and 11 finals between them. Pandya swung his bat this way and that and was out mid-way through the death for a 33-ball 45, with a strike rate of 136.36. Dhoni, on the other hand, stayed unbeaten with a score eerily similar to Pandya’s—31 balls, 42 runs, and a strike-rate of 135.48. Yet, it was widely felt all around Edgbaston—in the press box and in the stands—that something was terribly off with Dhoni’s approach.
Intent or lack of it
It is hard to put a finger on that ‘something’, perhaps his intent or lack of.
Dhoni’s diehard fans flooded social media platforms on their hero’s behalf to explain his process: the loss was guaranteed by then, they said, so he was simply in damage-control mode, fortifying India’s net run-rate. But there weren’t too many of these guys up and about at the ground. For, Edgbaston began draining out during the 47th over, when India needed a very plausible 62 runs from 24 balls, given that they still had five wickets in hand, and Dhoni and his CSK teammate Kedar Jadhav worked five singles from six Jofra Archer balls.
One of those singles, stabbed through point by Dhoni’s soft wrists, caused former captains Sourav Ganguly and Nasser Hussain to shake their heads in the commentary box.
Hard to explain
“I don’t have an explanation for this,” said Ganguly, repeating those words like a mantra. “Surely the India fans here would want to see Dhoni give it a go,” added Hussain even as the camera panned on a stream of blue exiting the stadium. “Look at them, they’re off. They’ve paid good money; World Cup game; top two sides; give it a go!”
Dhoni’s bat remained gentle and India fell short of England’s total by 31 runs. Make no mistake, India did not lose because of Dhoni. But India could have won because of him. And that was perhaps what the fans were upset about—the complete and total shutter-down approach of his when India’s position on the points table (and even their position in the game) didn’t call for the stonewalling that was on display.
Over the last few years, questions on Dhoni’s batting role has remained a touchy subject in press conferences, and on Sunday batting coach Sanjay Bangar got rather itchy when the talk became about the man in India’s No.7 jersey.
“I’m surprised that this question continues to come up every now and then,” said Bangar. “He’s doing the job for the team and overall we’re very happy with the intent he’s batting with.”
Bangar went on to list Dhoni’s best-ofs at this World Cup—the 74-run stand with centurion Rohit Sharma against South Africa, the quickfire 27 against Australia and the unbeaten 56 on a difficult wicket against West Indies, before adding: “Five out of seven games he has done the job for the team.”
Which is precisely the point Dhoni’s critics are making as well—in a team where the top-order is firing all the time, Dhoni, quite easily the most experienced batsman in India’s wafer-thin middle-order, simply cannot afford to have an off-day and smudge all the good work.
A day after India’s final group game against Sri Lanka, Dhoni will turn 38, the same age Tendulkar was when Dhoni led him to a World Cup trophy.
Back then in 2011, Tendulkar managed to put a hold on time and play with the same fluidity in his sixth World Cup as he had in his first. Dhoni is in his fourth edition, which perhaps is his final one. If he too can turn the clock back, the fans in the stands will not only erupt when he walks into the field, but also when he exits at the end of his innings.
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