For the briefest of seconds, it seemed like a time lapse, or highlights footage of the mid-noughties. Mahendra Singh Dhoni had just bludgeoned Tim Southee through midwicket, a stroke stamped with muscular brutality. Dhoni didn’t care as much to follow the path of the ball or stand frozen watching it rebound off the boundary ropes.
There was nothing unusual or incredulous about the shot — a cross-batted swivel, a feature of most Dhoni knocks. But it was the timing of it, albeit not in the shot-making sense, which was surprising. It was just the sixth ball he was facing. India had just lost Rohit Sharma. As if promoting himself wasn’t a surprise in itself, watching Dhoni charging down and flat-batting a medium-pacer was an atavism.
Images of a long-maned dasher came flooding back. In many ways, his 91-balled 80 was a throwback, not fully but for most parts. A threadbare dissection of his numbers would suggest he was batting like he’d been in his fabled finisher-avatar. However, that was not the case.
Dhoni was revelling in the newfound freedom of batting up the order. He might be monkish in concealing emotions on the field, even in the middle of a daunting chase, but here a more unrestrained, nonplussed self, manifested. The body language was one of dominance and not practised restraint.
Later in the night, he clarified the approach. He admitted the decision had a bit of “self” in it — his diminished ability to farm strike being the most apparent reason. That “self” could be indulged, for he has reached that stature where he can afford such liberties.
In the past too, we’ve indulged Sachin Tendulkar’s steadfast fixation with opening in ODIs, and he was palpably upset with then coach Greg Chappell, who wanted him to bat down the order. The experiment was shelved with Chappell’s departure. Another example is former Australia skipper Michael Clarke, who adamantly clung on to the number five spot in Tests until the fag end of his career.
But here, there was a pervading sense of pragmatism as well. Neither Dhoni nor the team management wants him to be a liability, and wasted lower down the order, sweating to finish matches, which could have only hastened his walk into the sunset. He is the captain, wicket-keeper — two of the most demanding tasks on the field—and of course undroppable. So why not give him a slot where he can be comfortable, and where he again illustrated on Sunday the requisite traits of a number four batsman. In fact, he has always been utmost comfortable batting at four—he averages 61.63 in 24 innings–or upwards.
It’s not like Dhoni is seeking a convenient way out of his recent travails, but looking to make himself more relevant. For batting at No 4, or any other spot, brings with it a certain responsibility. What it gives Dhoni is more time to control and impact the match, to modulate the tempo when they are batting first or orchestrating a chase. “First thing that helps is you are only two down. You can go up there and play the big shots,” he said.
It also implies that he’s more often than not batting with the top three, ensuring that Dhoni gets more time to bed in before he shifts gears. “It gives me a chance to bat with Virat. We run very well between the wickets, we can take on the opposition fielders even the best ones. It really helps to build partnerships. If you get a good partnership between 100-125 it becomes slightly easier for the batsman coming after that.”
There is also a sense of entitlement Dhoni might feel, like when he said, “I have batted lower down for a long time, I think 200 innings down the order.” It’s legitimate. For India were so stuffed with strokemakers during most of Dhoni’s time that there hardly ever was a vacancy. Finishing duties were thrust upon him. Later, as the galacticos departed one after another, opportunities presented themselves, but Dhoni then was in his prime (as finisher) and resisted such temptations.
Another point of consideration is that though he has nuanced the finisher role, after a point he was writhing in the cringing burden of it. It was getting a little too monotonously repetitive. “Often, you will get in with the last 10 or 12 overs, trying to slog and trying to get as many runs as possible, or the other way round where in the 20th over maybe where you’ve lost five wickets and are looking for a partnership. When you know there’s just one batsman after you, you actually weigh in a lot of things.
You have to be close to 90 percent sure all the time when you are setting out and looking for a big hit. It becomes more result-oriented,” he said.
The role tweak is very much a fabric of the modern team-game, especially in guaranteeing longevity without compromising on utility, and there are a lot of instances wherein it has worked spectacularly. Like Cesare Prandelli tinkering with the role of ageing Azzuri playmaker Andrea Pirlo for Italy. From an advanced role in the midfield, he remoulded him to a regista, or deep-lying playmaker, where he needn’t have to make too many runs and could dictate the match with measured passes. So did Sir Alex Ferguson while prolonging careers of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. These weren’t drastic alterations to your vocation, just subtle role-change. It’s not like a goalkeeper suddenly wanting to be a striker or a fast bowler deciding to open the innings.
Then, the success of role-tweaks also depends on how their colleagues also adjust to it and fit into the overall scheme. In India’s case, it hinges on how the team will be formatted once several of the regulars return. When Shikhar Dhawan returns, Ajinkya Rahane will have to come lower down the order. That the Mumbaikar loves batting in the top order is more than evident, but Dhawan’s claims are untenable in this format. This means, Rahane will have to invariably bat at five, where his adaptability is a concern. He should, at the latest, come at number four to influence the match, and Dhoni himself has been a little skeptical of Rahane’s finishing utility.
Then there are the likes of KL Rahul, who too is primarily a top-order batsman, and whose utility down the order is untested, and Manish Pandey, widely considered the next finisher in line (albeit based on the singular proof of his hundred against Australia early this year). Not to discount the stakes of Suresh Raina, who until a year ago was touted a canny finisher.
So Dhoni’s promotion has the potential to trigger a minor structural mayhem, and irrespective of how India are to line-up in the Champions Trophy, a few batsmen will have to either bat out of their comfort zone or plainly sit out. And there are only a few matches—five, unless the itinerary is reworked– before the Champions Trophy to judge which batsman fits where. But Dhoni sees this conundrum in a different light. “It gives a chance to some of the other youngsters to bat lower down the order and see as to what really needs to be done, how calculated they need to be and all. There is one way of chasing which is hit, hit, hit and ultimately you achieve the target and often on slower wickets that is quite difficult to achieve. So, I feel it’s overall good for everyone,” he said.
Or in a different light, Dhoni wants the suitors to experience and learn what he had learnt on the job several years ago. “To go through the processes,” as he often says. For Dhoni the finisher was as much a product of circumstances as natural gift. If, maybe India weren’t blessed with stroke-makers of such supreme capabilities as Dhoni played along with, maybe Dhoni the finisher would have ceased to exist.
And in his last leg, he’s trying to blend the “self” with the “team” in the most optimal way. It’s, as Dhoni says, a “win-win situation” for all involved. It gives him, as well as the audience, the opportunity to re-acquaint with Dhoni’s old self.