MS DHONI was a broken man and looked the part. India had just succumbed to an embarrassing defeat, failing to chase down 190 in Antigua. Minutes earlier, Dhoni had holed out to long-on with India needing 14 off the last seven deliveries. It was his first attempt at a big shot, and as is very often the case these days, he had not found either height or distance but only the fielder. After the loss, Dhoni’s face was a picture of misery in the Indian balcony. He sat forlorn and crestfallen while staring into the distance. And it took a teammate to pat Dhoni on his shoulder to literally shake him out of the sombre trance. He offered a handshake but the expression didn’t change.
Sadly for the former India captain, it’s an avatar of him that plays out frequently these days. There were moments during the IPL — the match where Ben Stokes scored a century and the final itself — when Dhoni would sit similarly distraught in the dug-out after having fallen in the quest for a big shot, an envious trait of his batting at his peak but one that seems to be deserting him rapidly. And what’s worse, there’s a younger, more exciting talent nipping at his heels right here in the Caribbean in the form of Rishabh Pant, with many suggesting it’s already time for the wicketkeeping gloves to be passed on.
That Dhoni isn’t the finisher he used to be has been apparent for the last three years. There have been enough instances to show that he’s simply not delivering the knockout blow with the same unerring consistency as before. On occasions, like here in Antigua on Sunday and often in the IPL, he isn’t even lasting till the last round. But Sunday’s 54 off 114 balls with a single boundary, the slowest half-century by an Indian in 16 years, was a frightening illustration of just how much his power-game has slipped and it even invoked comparisons with Sunil Gavaskar’s infamous 36 not out of 160 balls in India’s first-ever World Cup match. Who would have thought one day Dhoni would force one to recall Gavaskar’s worst ODI hour?
For the aura that Dhoni possesses as being the most clinical finisher in the history of ODI cricket, his greatest strength always was finding the boundary when it was required. But way too often, these days as soon as he wants to hit out, he ends up playing a flat and weak shot to either long-on or long-off. Dhoni has spent time working on his bat-swing and the load-up in his stance of late to somehow regain the lost power. But while it seems to work on and off — like on a couple of occasions during his match-winning 74* off 78 balls in the third ODI, which included a powerful straight six — Dhoni is still not connecting his attempted wallops down the ground with the same ferocity as before. As a result, he is trying for newer options and stranger areas to hit the ball into.
The six he hit off Jason Holder, second of two in the same over, on Friday was uncharacteristically engineered. He swivelled around and used his body’s momentum to guide the ball over deep backward square-leg. Here on Sunday though, he got tied by Ashley Nurse’s harmless off-spin and Kesrick Williams’ variety of cutters on a sluggish pitch. In his heyday, Williams, playing only his second game, would have been exactly the kind of bowler to be targeted. Four years ago in the Caribbean, in a similar scenario Dhoni had finished off Shaminda Eranga’s ODI career with a three-ball assault that handed India a famous one-wicket win. There probably hasn’t been a more definitive Dhoni finish since.
Dhoni allowed Williams to get the better of him by sheer lack of initiative. The Vincentian seamer has developed a reputation of being a wily death-over specialist and the best of the kind in the CPL. And he conceded only 13 runs in his last 4 overs before deservedly capping his memorable performance with Dhoni’s wicket off his final delivery. By then, Dhoni with his strange knock had left the tail with too much to chase down.
The dwindling power in his game has got Dhoni to change his game in recent times. It’s a different Dhoni that walks out to the crease these days, a seemingly more cynical and pessimistic one. It’s as if there’s an overlying fear of not giving up his wicket at any cost, even if it means at times playing in a fashion that is counter-productive to the cause. The fact is that the pitch was tricky and wickets had fallen around him. But there was perhaps some prudence in Dhoni looking to pull the trigger a little early here, or at least take on one of the younger bowlers and put pressure on him.
He though wasn’t ready to budge and kept nurdling the ball around and didn’t play a shot in anger till the time Holder went to Roston Chase for a bizarre over, which conceded 16 runs and brought India back into the match.
Having his family around, and running errands for daughter Ziva, has helped Dhoni at least keep his mind off cricket during the many off-days on this tour. Like in England though, practice sessions have been hectic affairs, as he spends nearly 45 minutes hopping from one net to the other. Dhoni will know better than most that he will continue being judged not just on the runs he makes but the way he makes them, considering he is Dhoni after all. And knocks like the one on Sunday, especially with Pant now having reached as far as the Indian dressing-room, will only turn the whispers regarding his future in the game into a crescendo. And on a day, Dhoni did a Gavaskar, the look on his face said it all.
Brief Scores: West Indies 189 for nine in 50 overs beat India 178 all out in 49.4 overs (Rahane 60 off 91 balls, Dhoni 54 off 114 balls; Holder 5/27) by 11 runs.