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India tour of New Zealand: The dilemma of calling it right

Dhoni has insisted on chasing totals in the recent past, but the move hasn’t proved successful of late.

Suresh Raina and other No. 4 contenders have struggled to rotate the strike as well as face the short ball resulting in a few middle-over slumps (AP) Suresh Raina and other No. 4 contenders have struggled to rotate the strike as well as face the short ball resulting in a few middle-over slumps (AP)

“When I win the toss on a good pitch, I bat. When I win the toss on a doubtful pitch, I think about it a bit and then I bat. When I win the toss on a very bad pitch, I think about it a bit longer and then I bat,” said WG Grace.

Try telling this to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The Indian captain seems to believe in the opposite when it comes to One-day Internationals outside the subcontinent. A rudimentary statsguru research is revealing. The last time Dhoni elected to bat after the flip of the coin went his way was four years ago, in Johannesburg. It’s from that era when India used to go to a full South Africa tour. And Australia used to be the ODI World Champions. In the Indian team itself, only four of those players are still in the side.

After that narrow one-run win all those years ago, Dhoni seems to have developed an unshakable faith in his batsmen that they will chase down any target that the opposition will set. If that is the reasoning, it has come under strain recently, with several questions unresolved in the current Indian batting line-up. The openers haven’t fired since the South African ODI tour, the number four slot is still up for grabs and the batsmen have still not come to terms with either the two short balls an over rule or pacing themselves between the powerplay and non-powerplay overs

Little faith in bowlers

Conversely, it could perhaps be that he has little faith in his bowlers and perhaps thinks that they will somehow conjure to concede one more than no matter what his batsmen would set. Here too, the problems are visible. There doesn’t seem to be a lead pacer in the attack while his spinners haven’t come to grips yet with bowling abroad. With few outright wicket-taking options and smallish grounds mean that the Indian bowlers have come under pressure.

After the third New Zealand-India match on Saturday, when he was asked why he chose yet again to bowl after winning the toss, Dhoni explained his reasoning: “Our bowling is steadily improving. But would it be wise to ask the batsmen to bat first and give the bowlers something to defend. In a way you may say that we are taking some pressure off the batsmen by doing that. But the other way is that we might ask the batsmen to give 325-340 runs to the bowlers every time they bat, it doesn’t matter where you are playing.”

Winning toss, losing match

In saying so, Dhoni perhaps inadvertently agreed that he doesn’t really expect his bowlers to successfully defend a sub-300 total. It could be a fair reasoning, but the fact is that it hasn’t worked for the last five match now, dating back to, again, Johannesburg seven weeks ago. India have won the toss in all those matches, fielded first and yet ended up on the losing side.

On each of those occasions, the rival captain mouthed the Oh-I-would-have-batted-anyway line but it appeared that they were genuinely glad. Brendon McCullum, at least, has seemed so.

Sometimes, like in the last match at Hamilton, there was an impression that Dhoni wasn’t reasonable but almost radical in his belief, refusing to budge even when it looked from the outset that the decision might help the opponents. In that game, when he put New Zealand in to bat, the forecast was that it would rain in the afternoon, which it did. And it meant New Zealand ended up benefitting from the Duckworth-Lewis system, as India ended up chasing a bigger target than the hosts had scored.

The series returns to Hamilton for the fourth one-day. The forecast is of a generally bright sunny day on Tuesday, but there could be some rain the afternoon. It will be interesting to see what Dhoni will do should he win the toss. It would be wise to put your coin on India bowling first.

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