On the eve of Rising Pune Supergiant’s game against Delhi Daredevils two months ago, MS Dhoni did something unusual. While the rest of his teammates were already well into their nets session, the former India captain sat leaning towards performance analyst Prasanna Agoram’s laptop screen for a good 20 minutes. He then proceeded to the middle of the MCA Stadium in Pune with Prasanna following suit with his tripod and camera in tow.
Then Dhoni got the analyst to place his apparatus right behind the stump at the bowler’s end and record the first half-hour of his session. He then moved him over to behind the net to shoot the remaining half-hour from that angle.
As the session went on, Dhoni and Prasanna, who’s worked with a lot of high-class batsmen — from Hashim Amla to Jacques Kallis — during his time in the South African dressing room, repeatedly exchanged notes about what looked like bat-swing and trigger positions with the veteran wicketkeeper-batsman doing most of the talking. Here was someone who’s shunned technical assistance and preferred batting in his own distinct way for a dozen years, suddenly sweating over his technique. It was a scene that was played out pretty much every time Dhoni came out for practice during the IPL.
The timing for the sudden change of mind isn’t surprising though. It’s been a strange last year or so for Dhoni. The runs haven’t come like they used to or in the destructive manner that the cricket world is used to seeing. And it has consequently started a lot of debate over whether Dhoni will ever be the indomitable force he was in limited-overs cricket. And a lot of it could well be due to a minor tweak in his technique, which it seems he’s been desperate to sort out.
It starts with his stance. There are three different kinds of flexion (bend of knees) you find in most batsmen at the point of delivery. Some use a low flexion, their knees more bent than usual and the hands lower as a result like say a Nasser Hussain or AB de Villiers. Some have no flexion, and are completely upright in with Marcus Trescothick and Hashim Amla the best examples. Most batsmen, Dhoni included, though prefer the mid-flexion or what is often referred to as a boxer’s stance where their knees are slightly bent with the hands positioned near the waist when the bowler’s in his delivery stride.
The most crucial part of this is for the flexion to be equal on both knees so that the weight is balanced perfectly and the head is in line with the front toe. But it’s been noticeable of late that Dhoni’s right-or back- knee is more bent than the left and as a result the weight isn’t balanced like it should be and the head is more titled rather than being upright. The changed toe-alignment have meant the hands are lower, and the base, which is so vital for striking the ball, isn’t stable anymore.
A wobbly base
Then comes the bat-swing, both in terms of where it’s coming from and where it’s ending up. The upswing is affected as a result of the lack of balance in the stance. At his peak, Dhoni had the perfect swing with the bat. It could have given routine golfers a complex. The bat would come straight down from behind his head, allowing him to turn his hips, which would subsequently lead the way through the swing, generating immense power through the downswing.
The wobbly base is now making his bat come down from a wider angle and that affects the downswing massively. For a bottom-handed player like Dhoni, the power is generated from the right shoulder. The change in angle of the upswing is leaving him more open-chested now and the power is now being generated mainly through his hands with zero rotation or clearance of the hips. That explains the reduced power and elevation in his shots towards the on-side. It’s also affecting his hitting zone drastically.
The earlier bat-swing from up to down allowed him to smash balls in a wider arc from long-off all the way to cow-corner. But now since the bat is coming down from outside his eye-line, the shot not only lacks power but is also going squarer, which is resulting in the reduction of boundaries. No wonder it’s very rare that we see the vintage Dhoni six anymore, like the famous one off Nuwan Kulasekara to win the World Cup in 2011. And it’s been very obvious since the IPL that Dhoni’s been working doubly hard in regaining the stance and subsequently the bat-swing of old.
This is mostly technical jargon though. And Dhoni will be aware that the turnaround for him will only come from getting the stance right in a real-match situation.
Dhoni said as much. “I’ve been working on it for a while. I’m basically trying to work on getting myself more upright in my stance. I noticed that the head is bending over a little and is not in line with the front toe,” he had said on the side-lines of an IPL practice session.
That’s not all he’s working on though. In recent times, he’s also seemed rushed by balls nipping into him at a decent pace and has often been late on the ball, getting hit on the pads. And it’s been noticeable that he’s been working on reducing the number of times he taps the bat on the surface before getting into his trigger position. There were times when the last tap coincided with the bowler releasing the ball, resulting in reduced time of reaction. In the nets here in England, and also previously during the IPL, he’s seemed keen to tap the pitch only twice, with the last of those well before the bowler is in his delivery stride, so that his hands are near the waist and ready long before the ball has left his hand.
Since Kagiso Rabada’s famous last over in Dhoni in Kanpur, where he stopped the most feared finisher in the world from scoring the 11 runs that were required, fast bowlers around the world have targeted him with short-of-length deliveries, either targeted at his ribs or even around off-stump. And Dhoni has also been seen trying to open up the stance a little and practice shots square on the off-side, which hasn’t always been part of his hitting zone. And it’s seemed to work on occasions in the IPL and against Sri Lanka, especially the six he hit off Suranga Lakmal early in his innings.
And there have been a few innings, the match-winning IPL knock against Sunrisers Hyderabad in Pune, and even the one at the Oval last week which would give him confidence that things could be falling into place again, that he could go back to being the Dhoni of old. But for all the unprecedented-in terms of the technical nous he’s adopting now-work he puts in at the nets, the mutterings and whispers about his future will stop only once he goes back to generating the kind of fear in bowlers the Dhoni of old used to in the middle.