Does MS Dhoni still have T20 fuel in him?

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The former Indian captain's record puts him right up there with the all-time ODI batting greats. But recent evidence shows that it may be counter-productive to depend on him in the shortest format.

While MS Dhoni's ability to steer an innings remains exemplary, his ball-striking abilities are clearly on the wane. | Vivek Bendre

After India were duly blanked in the second T20I of the ongoing India-New Zealand series, there were some murmurs about Dhoni’s performance. Chasing a steep target of 197, Dhoni came into bat in the tenth over at 67 for 4 with 130 runs to get in 65 balls, with Virat Kohli for company. If an Indian fan had tuned into the broadcast from then on, it must have felt like Kohli and Dhoni were batting in two different matches. Here was a team under pressure after a top-order failure and having to score two runs in every ball with no recognised batsmen after them, but their approaches and contributions to the chase at hand couldn’t have been more different.

Kohli was batting on 36 off 22, and got a boundary nearly ever over from then on; Dhoni, on the other hand, struggled to keep pace with the number of balls bowled at him — with only two sixes keeping him afloat of the run-ball parity count till the last two overs. Yes, he did muster three more big hits later and ended up with respectable figures, but they didn’t count in the context of the match, which had been lost with the lull in scoring and consequent loss of much-needed momentum after Dhoni walked in. This was one instance when the scoreboard didn’t tell us about Dhoni’s batting contribution with respect to the requirement.

 

Speaking in the post-match show, V.V.S. Laxman did not mince words “… Kohli's strike rate was 160, MS Dhoni's strike rate was 80. That's not good enough when India were chasing a mammoth total… I still feel it's time for MS Dhoni to give youngsters a chance in T20 format. It will be an opportunity for a youngster to blossom and get confidence playing international cricket”.

Ardent fans would also recall the botched chase in the West Indies, the only ODI match India lost on the West Indian tour. Though it was a low score, India rapidly found themselves in a spot of bother, losing three wickets cheaply. The asking run-rate never climbed to alarming levels until late in the innings, and it was assumed that India would coast to a comfortable victory considering the West Indies weren’t the strongest ODI outfit. Dhoni had cautiously limped to 26 off 56 balls with 89 still to get in 114 balls, and no boundary would come between overs 20-38. The writing was on the wall and there for everyone to see when Dhoni was dismissed 14 runs adrift of the target, having scored a solitary boundary. What grated further was that an exciting prospect like Rishabh Pant was taken all the way to the Caribbean, but only got to play in the solitary T20I.

 

Dhoni is nowhere close to be done in the ODIs — his showings against Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand confirm that there is plenty of ODI cricket left in him, where there are more number of balls he can afford to use to play himself in. But with him not getting any younger, is it time to pass on the wicket-keeping baton in T20Is? Is there any basis to Laxman’s statements?

Looking at Dhoni’s overall T20I record, it wouldn’t be an understatement if we were to call it underwhelming. Over the 11 years, Dhoni has batted 68 times—between positions 3 and 7. His run tally is 11th amongst the players who have batted in a similar range of positions; his batting average is quite healthy in 13th place (minimum 10 innings). But in the matter of strike rate, he lies at a lowly 68th place.

 

T20 aggregate stats over last 5 years

Span

Matches

Runs

Wickets

Balls

Balls per wicket

Runs per ball

2012-2017

341

97,510

4,253

75,655

17.77

1.28

 

Over the last five years, a bowling team in a T20I has captured a wicket every ~17.8 balls. This implies that the average team loses less than 7 wickets in a given match. Therefore, wickets are overvalued in T20Is (or 30% of the wickets are not utilised in an average match). On the other hand, each ball in a T20 game represents as high as 0.83% of the scoring opportunities for the batting side. Unlike an ODI, therefore, a batsman cannot take an over to “play himself in” in a T20I (like Dhoni did). Hence, for a T20 player, strike rate is a far bigger asset compared to the batting average (runs per dismissal).

Of all the Indian men who have batted in at least 10 innings at positions between 3 and 7, Dhoni’s strike rate is second from last. Internationally, he is not even in the Top 50 strikers of the ball. But this alone can’t be held against him as it is also true that the Indian team has traditionally played a few T20I matches in a year. Why, another illustrious player — AB de Villiers — also has an ordinary T20I record compared to his stellar club showings. Can we therefore turn to a tournament like the IPL where more data is available and pick up some clues?

 

MS Dhoni's IPL batting stats

Year

Balls faced

Strike rate

4s

6s

Balls per boundary

2008

310

133.54

38

15

5.85

2009

261

127.20

22

9

8.42

2010

210

136.66

26

8

6.18

2011

247

158.70

25

23

5.15

2012

278

128.77

26

9

7.94

2013

283

162.89

32

25

4.96

2014

250

148.40

22

20

5.95

2015

305

121.96

27

17

6.93

2016

210

135.23

18

14

6.56

2017

250

115

15

16

8.06

 

Over the ten seasons of the IPL, Dhoni has faced around 260 balls per season on an average. He’s had more good years than bad years (from a strike rate perspective). Overall, his numbers look really good — barring Hardik Pandya and Rishabh Pant, he’s well ahead of all of his Indian contemporaries in the strike-rate stakes; Sehwag, Suresh Raina, and Harbhajan Singh are other Indians who have better strike rates but aren't in the current reckoning. On the basis of his overall IPL record, it is no surprise that his spot had never been under threat. And it is not like keepers such as Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel, Naman Ojha or Sanju Samson have been knocking at the door with their exceptional performances in the IPL or other domestic T20s.

However, the above table also shows that Dhoni’s ability to find the fence and his strike rate have taken a beating in the last three years, as indicated by the consistently higher-than-usual balls-per-boundary figures. The last two times he had ordinary campaigns (in 2009 and 2012), he was able to redeem himself in the subsequent editions. But whether he will still be able to do that after the age of 36 is anyone’s guess. He probably isn’t any longer the player to take India home from a hypothetical scenario of 60 runs required from 6 overs with 5 wickets in hand. Needless to say, the latest Dhoni T20I showing is a microcosm of his limitations in this format, and his inability to get going right from the start.

 

Yes, MS Dhoni is an all-time legend in the ODI format, probably in the league of Tendulkar, Richards, Akram and McGrath; he may very well have delivered the World T20 in 2007 and impressive showings in the previous editions of the World T20; but recent evidence points to his inability to keep pace with the batting demands of the T20 game. Make no mistake, his keeping ability, fitness, tactical nous are surefire hits in the T20 format, but on the basis of striking the ball (like the Dhoni of 2006 vintage) he’s holding the team back.

This isn’t to suggest that the T20 door is closed to him; considering that wickets are overvalued, he could be considered as a pure wicketkeeper batting at number 7 or below — with a bevy of hard hitting batsmen and all-rounders above him in the batting order or at number 4, where he can afford to play his innings-building role. But pragmatically speaking, the selectors should have bid goodbye to him in the T20Is long time back; Dhoni certainly wouldn’t need the T20Is to get himself an attractive IPL contract.

With India playing only the odd T20I per tour, the stakes are quite low in the overall scheme of things. Besides, the next edition of the World T20 will take place only in 2020, which raises the question what purpose these bilateral T20I fixtures serve, and whether Dhoni will still be in contention for the T20I side at the age of 39. India have had a wretched T20I record during the last one year with victories against a greenhorn Sri Lankan team and a demoralised Australian team masking their overall deficiencies, and are in need of freshening things up. Hence, they should use the opportunity to audition the newer younger models such as Rishabh Pant and co. with a view of finding clues to a solution of a much bigger, impending problem — the long-term successor to Dhoni in the ODI format.

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