I occasionally wonder if deep down inside, in the very crevices of his intent, MS Dhoni believes his team can win in England.
He will of course say so to us, and to his team, but what he says to himself is perhaps most relevant. For it is out of that deepest, most honest, perception that all decisions stem from. There is a reason I ask this.
In the earliest part of my times spent following Indian cricket, in England, Australia and South Africa, India only lost matches. There were moments of individual glory but you never thought that team was striving to force a win. As I got to know some of those players better, I realised that was true. They didn’t believe they could win and that influenced the manner in which they took the field.
When your intent is ferocious, you scrap for every point, you feel the need to win every ball because you don’t know which one will turn the tide. You are relentless in your desire and this is something I learnt from some of my entrepreneur friends as well. Entrepreneurs are amazing people because they never lose sight of the opportunity. At our institute some years ago, some of the students asked them about the safety net in their lives when they turned entrepreneur. “If there is one” they said, “you will be tempted to take it many times. It will dilute your purpose. You will give up too easily.” How right they were for the safety net can sometimes be the danger you are unaware of.
At various times in this series, Dhoni has given the impression that he is seeking this dangerous safety net. He has taken decisions that suggest he is happy to try and hold the game where it is. If Jadeja, and more recently Ashwin, have been outbowled by Moeen Ali, it is also because he has bowled the more attacking lines. Ajinkya Rahane is an excellent player of spin bowling and he fell to the classic off-spinner’s dismissal, caught and bowled. That dismissal is rarer, and certainly not as satisfying, if achieved from a leg and middle line. But Jadeja at Southampton, where the tide turned, bowled almost exclusively on leg stump with a packed leg side field. Did Dhoni not believe that Jadeja could take wickets? If he did, the approach would have been different.
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The holding player
You saw that too in the choice of Pankaj Singh over Varun Aaron. India were playing six batsmen and so Dhoni preferred the gentler workhorse over the more incisive, but perhaps more brittle, Aaron. He wanted the holding player rather than the more attacking one. If he had been prepared to lose the match in trying to win it, he would have preferred Aaron but, and this brings us back to my original thought, maybe he didn’t believe he could get twenty wickets and so preferred what seemed the safer option-someone who would give him 30 steady overs. Maybe this is the outcome of the matches in Johannesburg and Wellington where his bowlers let him down, maybe that wound was still fresh, but by his actions, Dhoni betrayed his real feelings. As we all do in life I guess!
Aaron was incisive at Manchester. And he was erratic. But the opening for India, through the wickets of Cook, Ballance and Moeen, all achieved through pace, was provided by him. Maybe Umesh Yadav would have been similarly successful but India preferred two medium pacers to him. Neither Ishwar Pandey nor Pankaj Singh will ever win you a test match overseas but they are so typically Indian seamers; people India are comfortable picking. We keep falling into the dangerous safety net.
In limited overs cricket, where there are two end points to an innings, wickets and overs, Dhoni’s holding style works well. If you can consume overs for few runs, a style he used wonderfully with Yuvraj Singh in the World Cup, you can still win. But you need the more adventurous fellows in test cricket because 3-70 from 14 overs is better than 0-40 from 15 (unless of course the others are taking wickets!).
Also, in overseas conditions, the pitch is no longer India’s friend. A third or fourth day track in India is often the spinner’s accomplice. You do a bit and the pitch does a bit and together you win. In Australia, or South Africa, or on pitches like in Southampton or Manchester, the pitch tests your friendship. You need to put in more to get out more.
Dhoni could well argue that if his batsmen give him 150 and 160 there is little any captain can do. But I wonder sometimes, and this is just thinking aloud, if the way the batsmen bat is also a reflection of what is in their mind. But that is for another day!
I will watch Dhoni carefully at the Oval.