Fans need to relearn how to love Dhoni

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The MSD of yore is no longer in circulation. The sooner we come to terms with that, the easier it will become to appreciate his metamorphosis from finisher to failsafe.

MS Dhoni, the finisher-turned–sheet anchor, stays in the present. We too should value him as what he is at present.

As I approached the humongous housing colony where my uncle resides, I couldn’t help but marvel at the air-tightness of the security system in place — at the electronically-sealed entrance gate, the visitor has to punch in the apartment number on an electronic keypad; only when the resident gives the thumbs-up does it open. Residents use digitally-encrypted cards to swipe themselves into and out of the 20-storey building. CCTVs glare at intruders and guests alike from every nook and corner of the premises — corridors, porches, stairway, elevator. The one thing, therefore, that seems out of place are the security guards ambling to and fro near the doors, trying hard to appear purposeful amid all the technology-driven impregnability surrounding them.

When my uncle swiped me in at the main door, I had to ask him: “With so much state-of-the-art technology in place to identify intruders, why do you have so many guards?”

With the air of a man explaining the obvious, he said, ”When machines break down, we need humans. You are a cricket guy. Watched the Melbourne One day match? Kohli, Rohit and Dhawan are machines. They score runs with machine-like consistency. Dhoni isn’t a machine. He is very human. And when machines fail — which they do a lot — humans are the failsafe.”

I stood there, wonderstruck by this simple yet solid explanation of what Dhoni is in the scheme of things for Indian ODI cricket today. Thousands of journalists and analysts have taken excruciating pains to justify Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s place in the side in spite of his falling numbers. But never had I come across a more relatable explanation or a better analogy.

The issue around MS Dhoni is this — he was once a machine who would blast the side out of any hole; and now, years after, he is expected to do the same even as he has aged, his striking prowess and ability to rotate strike have declined, and he consumes way too many dot balls, so surely this makes him dispensable, no?

Let’s get this straight. India’s top three ODI batsmen — Rohit ‘Hitman’ Sharma, Shikhar ‘Gabbar’ Dhawan and Virat ‘Demi-God’ Kohli — are perhaps the ISO 9000 standard of machines that are produced in this format of the game. Since the last World Cup, they have contributed to 52.06% of all runs India have made in ODIs and accounted for 39 of India’s 48 hundreds in this timeframe.

More often than not, the top three give India a start so solid that all the middle-order has to do is to come in and add the finishing touches. To win a World Cup, however, you need to cover all bases and it would be presumptuous to assume that India have it in them to win matches when the top three fail.

Ideally, going into the World Cup, India could really have used a finisher like the Dhoni of old to complete this batting line-up. We have grown so accustomed to watching Dhoni maintain unshakeable calm in run-chases, donning his ‘captain cool’ hat, and taking the game down to the wire into a one-on-one battle with the bowler before sealing it off with a six. Thinking of Dhoni in any other way is unthinkable for most fans. However, the Dhoni of today is a pale shadow of what he once was.

 

 

Ahead of the ODI series in Australia, he was seen playing a bowling machine at the nets, which throwdown specialist Raghu had simulated to replicate Adam Zampa’s leg-breaks. Dhoni wasn’t looking to smash anything into the rafters. Instead, he was attempting to rotate the strike by picking out possible gaps in the field. And that is actually what Dhoni struggles with these days, and it also remains the focal point of this discussion for the simple fact that his fans haven't been able to come to terms with his new role, which is no longer to finishing games, but arresting a collapse.

The platform built by the massively efficient top three deserves better than someone coming in and consuming way too many balls and scoring at the rate Dhoni does. It deserves to be followed by the explosiveness of Rishabh Pant, the dynamics of Kedar Jadhav and the swagger of Hardik Pandya. At any rate, most of the time, the top three man the crease till pretty much the death overs.

So, when India lost the first ODI at Sydney, Bhuvneshwar Kumar candidly attributed it to a “rare failure” by the top three. He was right. India need their top three to win most matches. Which they oblige with, and at a staggeringly consistent rate. Yet, there is hardly anyone to add the icing on top of the well-baked cake. That someone is assumed to be Dhoni when his new role in the side is completely different.

One should recognise that Dhoni is the safety net, a security blanket, a failsafe for Team India. He is in there only to mitigate the impact of a top-order collapse, occupy time at the crease and set the game up for the latter half of the innings. The Dhoni of today cannot work with machine-like efficiency and score at a strike rate of 200. And the good news is that does not need to. All he has to do is ensure the game is set up for the others around him to take control. The rest is upon them. That is exactly what unfolded at Adelaide and Melbourne where he made half-centuries — not match-winning knocks, but ones that set the game up for the likes of Dinesh Karthik and Kedar Jadhav, who critics point to as as the deserved show-stoppers amidst the Dhoni fiasco.

It is fairly easy to point fingers at Dhoni based simply on his numbers. The human element he adds to this well-oiled One Day machine is often undervalued, his role misinterpreted. His presence in that middle-order frees up the top three to play fearless cricket. Criticise him all you want but without him the machines in this Indian line-up could rust easily. Of course, he may not work with machine-like efficiency but would the machine run as smoothly if not for the stable base that is Dhoni? It isn’t his fault or the management’s that we fans haven’t been able to get over the Dhoni we became so accustomed to.

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