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Cricket evenings tend to blur into one another without leaving much of a residue in the mind. Pre-game practice sessions that is. The white ball keeps flying here and there, cries of ‘watch out’ ring the arena, and from a distance it seems everything seems a hit-and-giggle affair as the batsmen tend to just flex their muscles. Sometimes, just sometimes, you can sense a bit of gravitas in the proceedings. Like on Wednesday in Pune. The premise was the baton-passing moment between MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli but it felt too much to hope for anything to actually eventuate between the two in public in a training session.
Surely, they aren’t going to give dramatic visuals of intense chats that can be interpreted as ceremonial handover? Surprise, though, was in the air under a crimson Pune sky with rolling hills framing the ground.
Kohli and Dhoni started talking pretty early in the piece. They warmed-up for the practice together, standing near the boundary line, and began chatting. It continued for a good 10-15 minutes and continued as they jogged together. Not long after they finished the respective batting stints, they again joined together near the nets and went on and on. Dhoni with his hands loosely clasped behind his back, and Kohli, with his pads still on. Wave of arms from Dhoni, nod of heads from Kohli, and they went on like this for another 20 minutes. Most times, it would seem any interpretation of a chat would be pointless exaggeration but it felt somehow different out there last evening. Suffice here to say they weren’t just discussing the dinner plans.
It was one of those evenings when the normally reticent Dhoni spoke a lot. And it wasn’t just to Kohli. Anil Kumble too was dragged in for a meaty conversation involving England’s batting. Based on the way they batted in the warm-up game in Mumbai. Dhoni of course not only revived his faithful’s hopes with a breakneck half-century but was in the best place behind the stumps to observe how the England batsmen, Sam Billings in particular, used the reverse sweeps and the conventional sweeps, and numerous deflections behind point. He was seen and heard communicating it to Kumble, indicating the field placings that would be best suited for the visitors.
Dhoni’s voice was not only heard at the ground but also made its presence in the press interaction of R Ashwin. Sometimes we can miss how the change of captains not only affects the strategies, attitude, and all the rest of the jazz but it also percolates down to simple stuff like a bowler adapting to where he should now address his communication.
With Dhoni, Ashwin says, it was simple- from “top of the mark to the keeper”. Now he has to switch his head here and there, find Kohli at midwicket or covers and communicate. These can take some getting used to in the frenzy of the ODIs and T20s.
There was another point that Ashwin made which was probably a more important one in delineating the captaincy styles of Dhoni and Kohli. The stereotype has it that Kohli is more aggressive of the two – it’s been taken as granted but Ashwin spelt out the nitty-gritty of it.
Apparently, or according to Ashwin anyway, it’s in the way how Kohli tends to go for wickets not worrying about the runs.
“Virat on occasions can be a little aggressive and that’s the one thing that I need to try and adjust to. And obviously giving those extra runs to try and get a wicket is not such a bad thing,” Ashwin said.
It’s not as if Ashwin was interpreting from the Tests that he has played under Kohli but he referenced an ODI series in October 2014 against Sri Lanka. Led by Kohli, India whitewashed the neighbours 5-0 — a one-sided series that’s otherwise remembered for Rohit Sharma’s 264 — and Ashwin says he felt the difference in the styles then. “He likes attacking, he likes picking wickets through the middle overs. Even at the cost of some runs,” Ashwin said.
It’s an extremely interesting point. Dhoni wouldn’t let things necessarily drift in the middle overs of ODIs – certainly not like how he can at times do in Tests – but there was a general pattern about it. He would try controlling the boundaries, would seem as if he is plugging along with a general sense of run-rate that he was willing to let the opposition flow along. And in England, the hosts will be up against a team that thrives on going hammer and tongs through the middle period between the 15th and 40th overs.
Ashwin says Kohli is a bit different in that regard. That he would try pushing for wickets in the middle overs which means as a bowler, Ashwin has to mentally prepare and sort out his thought process accordingly. “That seems like a good headline, doesn’t it? The difference in communication styles, what is required from me,” Ashwin said in jest.
Dhoni would remain a man much sought after in the matches of course. Not just because of his experience or because of his stature but because where he stands in the games, behind the stumps. “I feel Mahi is going to hold the key because he’s the keeper and he’s going to bring that invaluable experience with him. It’s going to be very, very important that we try and take as much as valuable inputs from him and try and take the team forward,” Ashwin said.
Forget the game, it seems, even in the practice sessions, Dhoni’s inputs are being constantly sought and given. For, when Dhoni talks, the Indian team still listens.