Three of his best batsmen, whose technique is supposedly better than his and who score significantly more per innings than him, had been out for ducks. The first ball he faced beat him all ends up. To survive the overcast morning, the pace of the pitch, the swing in the air, Mahendra Singh Dhoni had to learn from the mistakes made by those refined batsmen before him. For that, he needed to unlearn cricket’s ageless batting lessons.
Thinking on his feet, Dhoni worked out a way to deal with James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the two English bowlers who were making the ball move late in the air and hurry off the wicket. The textbook method to counter crafty bowlers under truly English conditions is to play late and avoid extravagant shots. Dhoni did exactly the opposite. He would regularly charge down the wicket and throw the sink at the ball.
Dhoni vs Anderson and Broad was an interesting battle. Dhoni would stand way outside the crease when facing them. Once in a while he would even take a step further up after the ball was released. Most times this forward movement would see him tackle the ball before it could begin its final dip. And since his bat came down as a whip, even the edges would fly over the inner cordon of fielders.
To push Dhoni back into the crease and thus force him to repeat the errors made by India’s top order, Anderson would bowl short. Standing up, Dhoni would find it tough to sway away or duck. To avoid getting into a tangle, he would take body blows. Once he got hit by Anderson on the shoulder. He didn’t react, just brushed the bruise and was ready for the next ball. On another occasion, he just about saved the helmet from getting dented.
This approach disturbed the perfect lengths that Broad and Anderson were bowling. India got some breathing space as the new-ball bowlers had to change their plans. To counter Dhoni’s forward march, they pulled the ball further back. This suited the Indian skipper. England were now bowling the way he liked.
A few much-needed runs were logged because of Dhoni’s “alternative” method. His boundaries showed how his tactics were productive. He could connect those punches on the front foot and send the ball to the ropes since he wasn’t allowing the ball to swing. And because he was going hard at the ball, the edges would either find their way between the slip fielders or fly over their heads. And when the bowlers bowled short, the ball got slapped to square leg.
Dhoni, however, didn’t get an able and reliable partner on Thursday. Ravichandran Ashwin did stick around for a while, but once he fell the tail looked shaky. Running out of partners, the skipper increased the risk. He became more aggressive. The ball would miss the stumps by millimetres and top-edges would slip through fingers.
Dhoni’s looked ugly but was effective. The Indian captain has never let the public opinion or expert view decide his cricket. He is someone who knows his limitations but is aware that he can innovate. Thinking out of the box comes naturally to the man who learnt the game at Indian cricket’s outpost, Jharkhand, but still went on to make a place for himself in a line-up dominated by Indian batting’s golden generation. He isn’t a slave of the text book. He believes that when conventional wisdom fails, jugaad works.