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A question of tactics

MS Dhoni,in away Tests,has been guilty of taking an One-day International mindset into the longer format,missing a trick or two and thereby letting teams off the hook. Karthik Krishnaswamy details the India skipper’s defensive mindset.

First over after lunch on Day Two at the SCG,Ricky Ponting tucked Zaheer Khan off his legs for a couple. When Ponting and Michael Clarke completed the first run,they had brought up a fairly rare landmark.

It was only the 14th time in Test history that a fourth-wicket pair had put on 200 after coming together with their team three down for 50 or less.

But it was the sixth time against India,and the third during MS Dhoni’s captaincy tenure – after Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood at Chennai in 2008 (from 43/3) and Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor at Napier in 2009 (from 23/3).

There can’t be a more damning piece of empirical evidence than that to suggest that his tactics have let teams off the hook far too often.

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At lunch,Australia’s lead was still only 45. India were still in the game,just about,going by the old psychological trick of adding two wickets to the total. Some captains in that situation might have asked their bowlers for one last attacking burst. Dhoni instead brought on Virat Kohli after two overs each from Zaheer and Ishant. From that point,the game drifted like a Shane Warne leg break without the sting in the end. After an eight-over spell from Kohli,Virender Sehwag came on for five overs of amiable off breaks. For 13 consecutive overs from the Randwick End,Ponting and Clarke happily milked part-timers. From the Paddington End,Ravichandran Ashwin laboured from around the wicket,sometimes with a leg slip in place,mostly without even that pretense of attacking intent.

Dhoni has a history of letting the game drift. There were plenty of instances on the England tour,most notably during England’s second innings at Lord’s,when he started the afternoon session with Suresh Raina and didn’t bring on Ishant Sharma till ten overs after lunch. In the morning,Ishant had bowled 11 overs and taken three wickets for 14 to give India a genuine chance of getting back in the match.

Speaking to The Indian Express at the time,former England skipper Mike Brearley had expressed bemusement at Dhoni’s move.


“He (Ishant) had taken three of the five wickets before lunch and England were 62 for five. If Ian Botham was doing it,you couldn’t get the ball out of his hands and I wouldn’t let him,” he said. “You have to seize those moments,they don’t come back. It was ridiculous to start with a part-time spinner.”

Dhoni’s habit of taking his foot off the pedal and letting the game drift isn’t restricted just to Test cricket.

But in the one-day game,where he has experienced almost uninterrupted success,bowling changes and field placements follow a more or less set pattern. And things can only drift so far in 50 overs. More often than not,India’s batting makes up for the extra runs given away on the field.

Momentum lost


In Tests,lost momentum isn’t as easily recovered. Preserving a strike bowler for the new ball makes sense if his replacement can keep things under control and threaten to take wickets in the interim. Coming back to bowl at the same pair,with their partnership swelled by a further 75 runs,the strike bowler isn’t likely to strike.

In India,where two spinners can bowl long spells in tandem with the old ball,this isn’t as much of an issue. Zaheer Khan can pick and choose his moments to come back and attack batsmen with reverse or conventional swing. Overseas,his younger fast-bowling lieutenants have to take a lot more responsibility.

It’s a problem Dhoni himself has identified. “Usually when you come out of India,there comes a phase where the ball doesn’t do much,and there is not much for the bowlers. That’s the time where we need to improve,” he said,reflecting on the SCG defeat at the post-match conference. “Not only as a skipper for me,(but) the plans need to be executed really well. Because you have a few fields in mind,if the bowlers stick to that plan and execute well,it looks very good. But once it starts going wrong,it looks very difficult to manage.”

At the SCG,Ishant and Umesh Yadav took a lot of pressure off Ponting and Clarke after they had come together at 37 for three. They had drifted onto the pads and bowled a number of long-hops. Even so,Dhoni might still have spread the fields out a little too early in their partnership.

Fields for bad bowling

With only half an hour or so to go for stumps on Day One,he had brought on Ravichandran Ashwin for the first time. Australia were 99 for three,still trailing by nearly a hundred. In that situation,some captains may have looked to save singles and give their off spinner an extended sequence of deliveries at one batsman. Dhoni put a squarish fine leg,a deep midwicket and a deep point.


“Can’t set fields for bad bowling,” said Kerry O’Keeffe,on air for ABC radio. “But these days they do.” Deep point has been a particularly sticky issue for Dhoni. In Cape Town last year,it took two reverse sweeps from Jacques Kallis to cause the skipper to push that fielder back on the boundary for Harbhajan Singh.

South Africa’s score at that point was 71 for four,their lead just 69 on the morning of Day Four,and the smell of a series win filled India’s noses. Harbhajan’s figures were 5.3-0-16-4. You would think that Dhoni might have wanted Kallis to play that shot more often,against the turn,straining a bad back. You would be wrong.


Asked about the use of that particular fielder,O’Keeffe said it’s a symptom of modern captaincy,and in itself not a bad idea,especially for a bowler like Ashwin. “Well,I think that’s a measure of,they don’t want to concede boundaries,” he said. “Because he’s a bloke who tries to pin people to the crease,and work his little subtle variations,if they do open up and hit him through flat-batting,they’re only going to get one. So I think there’s a bit of modern strategy about it. I don’t think it’s negative,but it’s the way the modern game is.”

But when the fields stay deep regardless of bowler or match situation,it seems a case of modern captaincy by rote. “That’s where he’s been disappointing,Dhoni,” O’Keefe said. “He’s been very conservative.”


At other points during Australia’s innings,Dhoni tried a couple of other tactics that have previously served him well in India. Just after Australia had taken the lead,Dhoni gave Umesh a 7-2 field and had him bowl wide outside off stump. At Nagpur in 2008,he had frustrated Australia with the same strategy,and India had had the better of a hard-fought Day Three,taking eight wickets for 166 runs in 85.4 overs to take an ultimately match-winning 86-run lead.

But there,India were already 1-0 up in the series,were still in control of the match,and all four of their bowlers were in form. None of this was the case at the SCG,and the tactic was bound to fail. It lasted only two overs. Ponting and Clarke were seeing the ball well enough by then to walk across their stumps and clip Umesh through the leg side for boundaries.

During the morning session,whenever Zaheer and Ishant bowled to Ponting,two men waited on the leg side fence for the uppish hook. It never came. When Ponting pulled,he always kept it down. They had tried this tactic at Melbourne as well,and it hadn’t worked there either.

It had made sense then,for Ponting had been out to this stroke a few times during his lean patch,but he had clearly batted his way into form at the MCG. In the second Test,on a flat deck,it only seemed like captaincy by spreadsheet,at a time when Dhoni had to think on his feet.

Tactical acumen,of course,is only one aspect of captaincy. After the completion of their 288-run partnership,Ponting had reflected on the ease of Clarke’s ascent to his former throne. “The stuff that happens on the field,that’s the easy part of captaining. There’s so much other stuff that you have to do and you’re required to do as captain to make the team run smoothly and make sure everybody inside our dressing room is as happy.”

There’s little to suggest that Dhoni isn’t doing those things perfectly well. It’s hard to find someone better to lead India at this point. But his lack of tactical nous is a definite worry. It might not have reversed India’s awful run of away results,but a little bit of imagination in some of the Tests might have kept them in contention far longer.

First published on: 08-01-2012 at 01:49:49 am
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