Watching MS Dhoni captain, you are often enticed into wondering how long he plans to continue with his patented leg-slip formula in Test cricket. He certainly must. So rampant has its use been under the Dhoni era that it’s already become a trademark of his captaincy reign. Almost to the extent that the leg-slip is considered a travelling companion of the enigmatic Indian captain, especially when his team playing overseas.
In this case, the Indian team has paid dearly for their leader’s persistence, or let’s call it obsession, with having a man a few inches to his right or left—depending on who’s facing—while his fast bowlers are on. At times, it doesn’t even matter who the batsman is. Like was the case at the MCG on Friday.
India couldn’t have asked for a better start to proceedings. Umesh Yadav had knocked off the biggest threat in the Australian top-order with no runs on the board. David Warner had fallen to a ball that seamed away from him after pitching on a perfect length. India had their tails up. The Swami Army was out-voicing the 60-odd thousand Australians who had turned up as always with gusto for Boxing Day.
Out in the middle were two batsmen, both on the wrong side of 30 and both desperate for a sizable score. Not for the first time, and in all likelihood nor the last, they let the opposition off the hook. They not only let Australia out of jail, it almost felt like they sat there blindfolded coaxing the hosts to flee towards safety.
The blame though on this occasion, like in the past, lay with Dhoni, and his bull-headed belief that someday he will entrap a batsman using his leg-slip.
The MCG wicket might not have looked all that menacing, nor was it so, but it was offering seam movement. And whenever Mohammed Shami or Yadav pitched it up, they got the ball to move off the wicket. Australia’s innings started with three maidens. By the end of over 5, their score read 8/1. The pressure was on. Then Shami started his spell with a half-volley and a half-tracker, allowing Chris Rogers two boundaries. The pressure had been released, and in came leg-slip.
By having a man there, Dhoni was sending mixed messages to his bowlers. Yes, the ball is seaming off the wicket. But still I would prefer you bowling short of length. That obviously was the only way the leg-slip could be brought into play. And then followed a barrage of deliveries from all three seamers that were neither here nor there, and allowed the Aussies to take the game away.
Twenty-six of the 46 Rogers scored before lunch came off those back of the length deliveries, half-a-dozen off them behind square on the leg-side. One of them did fly off the left-hander’s glove in the gap between Dhoni and his leg-slip. But it’s difficult to justify any strategy, if it produces one wicket-taking opportunity in half-a-day’s play. Yes, he had got rid of Rogers in the first innings at the Gabba by getting Yadav to bowl around the wicket and cramp him for room.
But that was after the gritty opener had already made 55. The incoherent radar of the Indian seamers—a near-eternal issue for Indian fast bowlers in foreign soil—ensured that there were enough freebies on or outside his off-stump. At the other end, Watson was benefitting from the Dhoni plan of attack too.
India have seen enough of Watson over the years. If not in the IPL, then in the many ODIs and Tests he’s played against them. And the universal ploy to the burly right-hander has been to bowl full, and for a reason. For, early in his innings when Watson isn’t susceptible to getting trapped in front on the shuffle, he’s prone to edge deliveries that at times could be as wide as the proverbial fifth stump.
In the last 12 months, 70 per cent of Watson’s dismissals have come via these two routes. But he had perished to a faulty pull-shot in the second innings at Gabba. And Dhoni was keen on a déjà vu. The stats could go to hell. As it turned out, in the first session of play, 29 of the 41 Watson scored were off short of length deliveries. The one time Shami got it right he produced an outside-edge. But Shikhar Dhawan let it slip.
Post-lunch, India struck twice in two overs, with Shami and Ashwin bowling back-to-back wicket maidens. Rogers fell to a length delivery that he could have left alone but instead flashed at. Watson on the other hand fell to a premeditated sweep off Ashwin, who was in the middle of a spell that at one stage read 11-5-8-1. His seven scoring shots off the seamers after lunch came off the front-foot. India had learnt their lesson. The leg-slip had disappeared. It looked like India had found their length again. It was a 10-over period where India gave away only 15 runs and bowled four maidens.
In walked Steve Smith and Shaun Marsh. Australia were 115/3. Back came the leg-slip. For his counterpart, Dhoni went a step further. He went the Douglas Jardine way in fact. Out came a short square-leg to back-up the leg-slip. For three weeks, India have tried close to a hundred different ways to get the Australian Test captain out. But he’s remained literally invincible. For some reason, in Dhoni’s opinion, bowling short of length on his pads and cramping him up was the secret formula. As it turned out, it wasn’t to be, as Smith finished unbeaten on 72. His first three runs came off 30 balls, as R Ashwin, bowling his best spell Down Under, tied him down with clever changes of pace and impeccable accuracy.
Again the Indians were guilty of bowling too short to Smith, and in a way they played him in. By keeping two men back for the short-ball, Dhoni also made sure his pacers bowled a length that allowed Marsh to keep tucking away length deliveries on his pads for singles.
Off the 32 he made, seven of them came through singles to the right or left of the deep backward square-leg fielder. When Brad Haddin arrived, the Indians unleashed a blitzkrieg attack of bouncers on him, but he somehow survived. The strategy seemed apt for the ageing Australian wicketkeeper, who’s clearly struggled against the short-ball of late.
But there’s a reason why Dhoni’s strategy has borne successful results some three times in four years. That’s to do with the inconsistency of his fast bowlers from this team and the last.
Despite playing in his 61st Test, Ishant still can’t claim to be the leader of the pack. He’s still way too unreliable to own that tag. On Boxing Day, Ishant bowled only 15 deliveries out of his 21 overs that pitched on the ‘driving’ length, three of which were the first three of his opening over. Despite his impressive economy he was hardly a threat to the Aussies. Skipper Dhoni might have to cop a major sense of responsibility for that. Having a plan is one thing but to have the bowlers to execute it is totally different. How much longer will India keep paying the price for their skipper’s fixation for a misfiring ploy?