India’s catch-22 situation with MS Dhoni

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With the former India captain’s batting coming a cropper more often than is tenable, it may be time, counter-intuitively enough, to just let the man be.

You learn non-attachment when your heroes decline. | Getty Images

“Equanimity, non-attachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upa- means ‘over,’ and -iksha means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other...”

.. is how Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist master, describes the term ‘upeksha’, one of the four elements of love according to the Buddha.

The art of letting go makes one’s love undemanding, trustful and tolerant. But when it comes to MS Dhoni and the love-hate quotient he has with his fans, how much is too much?

 

 

Dhoni, the Indian skipper who earned fans the World over for his monk-like sangfroid in the pandemonium of the death overs in limited-overs cricket, like someone chewing pop-corn during the final few minutes of an edge-of-the-seat Hitchcock thriller, has certainly hit a sticky patch.

It was perhaps inevitable that Dhoni’s propensity for taking games to the wire and facing off against bowlers in one-on-one showdowns would reach a dead end once his best years were past. But when it did finally transpire, the fans seemed ill prepared for it. At Lord’s, in the second One Day International of the ODI series against England, Dhoni was booed for literally every dot ball he played out. Incidentally, on the same day he recorded his 10,000th run in ODI cricket.

With India in a fix after a top-order collapse, Dhoni was left in charge of India’s run-chase of 323; the skipper went back to his tried and tested mantra of settling in at the wicket before hoping to launch at the optimal moment. His plan came apart in seven overs after his arrival at the crease, with Hardik Pandya departing, leaving Dhoni to do the bulk of the work with the tail.

Dhoni, on 20 off 35 at that point, failed to commandeer the chase and, instead, ambled along aimlessly to 37 in 59 balls, inviting huge criticism from a large section of fans and critics. The thing with Dhoni’s approach, even before he hit this tricky phase, was that when it clicked it looked all glorious but when it didn't it was ugly, almost grotesque.

 

 

In his youthful past, with his immaculate mindset, awesome hand-eye coordination and sheer power, Dhoni found success more often than not. The trend, unfortunately, is reversing. In the past few years, Dhoni has been a shadow of his former self and the resultant forlorn figure is there for all to see. One Day International cricket in itself has changed, perhaps best exemplified by England themselves, who were nothing more than a bunch of wannabe limited-overs players stuck in a Test match mentality till their cock-ups in the 2015 World Cup.

First-innings scores have ballooned, with scores of 300 and successful run-chases of the same so common that Hrishikesh Kanitkar’s celebrations after chasing down 315 against Pakistan in the Silver Jubilee Independence Cup final in 1998, now appears ludicrous.

It is perhaps here that Dhoni has failed to move with the times. Granted, he is the mastermind — captain or not — under whom this Indian side flourishes. But the fact is, the “best finisher in the game” isn’t finishing games off with as much nearly as much regularity as many of his peers. In fact, the last time Dhoni hit a half-century in a successful run-chase without one of the top three at the crease was way back in the 2015 World Cup against Zimbabwe.

It would perhaps be unfair to judge his decline purely on the basis of these last three years, given that the top order has been phenomenal and have finished off most games by themselves without Dhoni even needing to don his trusty Batman costume. As such, we cut down India’s run-chases since the 2015 World Cup into two halves — the ones above 300 and the ones below 300.

 

When we try to place our favourites on a pedestal and carry them with us in a closed box when all they need is some air, what ensues is destruction.

 

The results are quite intriguing to say the least. Dhoni has been exemplary in run-chases of under 300, scoring 431 runs in 14 innings (28 matches) with three half-centuries and an average of 53.87 with 6 not-outs. However, the picture takes a depressing turn when the target is in excess of 300. In these games, Dhoni has scored a mere 182 runs in 10 matches at an average of 18.2 with zero half-centuries and zero not-outs. Interestingly, his strike rate in these ODIs is 73.6.

It would still be unfair to judge Dhoni just on the basis of bland numbers if we don’t actually take into account the match situation at his point of entry in chases of 300-plus runs. It is here that we arrive at the conclusion that the long-maned, gallant Ranchi boy that fans worshipped is close to being a spent force.

 

 

India have lost eight of their 10 chases of 300-plus runs since the 2015 World Cup with Dhoni in the side. Even in the two games that they did win, the wicket-keepe’s contribution was minimal. Appallingly, he has walked in to bat with required run-rates of above 7 per over in eight of these ten games and scored at over seven in just one of them. Even then, the required rate was above 11.

Dhoni’s strike rates in these matches are way below the RRR that the game situations had demanded, which sketches a clear picture of his failure to come to terms with the rate at which he needed to score. For instance, even in the tied Asia Cup Super Four encounter against Afghanistan the other night, Dhoni walked in at no. 4, with the team comfortably placed at 127/2 after 21 overs. RRR was well under control then, as was the team run-rate. Yet, the former skipper got stuck in his shell and made 8 from 17 balls before falling lbw to a part-timer, albeit off a debatable decision.

Dhoni’s way of playing himself in before going after the bowling works as long as the second half of that plan is executed well. Since that hasn’t happened, his below-par strike rate is putting the other batsmen under pressure, in turn resulting in the fall of a wicket, either at his end or the other.

From the time Kagiso Rabada used the short ball to silence Dhoni in the death overs in the ODI series during South Africa’s 2015 tour of India, teams have employed this ploy against the man. They bowl into his body, rather than aiming for a yorker, slower ball or a low full-toss as they might otherwise normally do. This in turn has put Dhoni at a disadvantage as his huge bat swing, which provides all the oomph to his savage power during the death overs, is cut out.

With the next World Cup a few months away, it might be hasty and opprobrious to suggest that India dispense with Dhoni. But playing him where he is currently batting, and allowing him to linger on with his current method is playing into the opposition’s hand. This is where Virat Kohli, Ravi Shastri and the team management need to utilise the exceptional little qualities of Dhoni to the fullest.

 

 

Batting at the top was supposed to give Dhoni leeway to settle into his game without bringing his mates under pressure. As a solid, impermeable brick wall, Dhoni theoretically has the ability to absorb pressure in the case of a collapse and set the stage for the team’s lower-middle-order aggressors to take over. He seemed perfect for the role. But unfortunately, in his 11 inningses since the World Cup when he has played at the no.4 position, Dhoni has scored below the team’s run rate on 8 occasions, suggesting a familiar trend of hogging the strike and not scoring quickly enough for it.

The other option is to let Dhoni go. While it might sound harsh, with the likes of Dinesh Karthik and Kedhar Jadhav stepping in and guys like Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul and Krunal Pandya waiting in the wings, the Ranchi superpower might just be additional baggage to carry to a World Cup.

As Master Hanh puts it, “upeksha does not mean that you don’t love”. When we try to place our favourites on a pedestal and carry them with us in a closed box when all they need is some air, what ensues is destruction. Perhaps it is time to let Dhoni breathe, to let him be.

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