It took just one-sixteenth of a second for the entire sequence to play out. Ravindra Jadeja’s slider whizzed past Chris Morris’s bat and MS Dhoni whisked the bails. In the interim, Morris’s back-heel had been fractionally air-borne.
How much is 1/16th of a second? Try to tap your finger twice on your phone screen as fast as you can. You might just match it.
In that time, essentially, Dhoni’s brain gauged the bounce and speed of the delivery, sent instructions to his hands, and they reacted. Pertinently, for such photo-finish stumpings, he had to break the stumps at the exact moment Morris would lift his leg. Never has the sporting cliche blink-of-an-eye fitted a situation so perfectly.
If you thought this was fast, Dhoni showed it could be faster. A few deliveries later, he stumped Amit Mishra in about .11 seconds. Even this wasn’t his fastest stumping. Last year, during the home series against West Indies, he had stumped Keemo Paul in .10 seconds. Suffice it to say that he’s the Usain Bolt behind the stumps, and like the Jamaican great, whatever the distance or angle he’s equally devastating.
Take for instance the Mishra dismissal. The ball was pitched outside the off-stump and was turning away from the right-hander. But Dhoni’s gloves are right behind the ball, as if embedded with a ball-sensor underneath.
Coincidentally, it’s the position of the gloves you first notice—the side-on angle offers a clearer understanding of his craft. The gloves are suffocatingly close to the stumps, as if he’s anticipating a stumping off every ball. As the ball dips into the batsman, he pushes his hands – just the hands and not the entire upper body – towards the ball. He then gathers the ball close to the straight than sideways. Two aspects of this technique rip the keeping-manual tenets apart—the initial forward movement and the front-on gather. For among the fundamentals a keeper imbues in his formative years is to wait for the ball to nestle in his gloves than go grabbing at it. Dhoni doesn’t grab, but his wrist-movement is minimalistic, the initial forward (glove) movement suggests he’s reaching for the ball, and there’s hardly any follow-through.
The reason for the technical morphing is clear—to save that fraction of a second between whipping the bails and the batsman making it to the crease. So in case Dhoni had conventional technique, Morris would have survived.
Such an improvised technique is prone to erring, for the ball risks bobbling out of his gloves, especially when keeping to someone as brisk as Jadeja, who in this format operates between 90 and 100 kmph. The Morris delivery was 95 kmphs. The ball wobbles a bit in Dhoni’s gloves but settles comfortably. It’s not soft hands that are on display—the definitive trait of a great keeper—but rather strong hands.
Therein lies Dhoni’s mastery—strong (though to be mistaken with leaden) hands, which India’s fielding coach R Sridhar once explained as “using force to absorb force” method.
“While his hands are going towards the stumps, there’s a slight flick of the wrists in the backward direction. In my opinion, it’s not safe hands but strong hands that allow him to do that. That’s also the reason you will rarely see him collecting the ball to his side like other keepers,” he explained. The strength sort of shock-absorbs the force.
Contrast this with someone like Kumar Sangakkara, whose overall stumping tally he’d surpassed in international cricket. The Sri Lankan is more of a classicist, though he had an eye for the radically flashy, like the Jimmy Maher back-of-the-arm flick of Muttiah Muralitharan. Like Dhoni, his pair of gloves is closer to the stumps, nearly over it before it shakes and shrivels, like the recoil of a gun-shot, on impact. While over time, he reduced the flourish, he also almost collected the ball sideways and not cup it like Dhoni. Also, like the classicists, his feet and always moved with the direction of the ball.
Here again, Dhoni is a contrarian. He hardly drags his right-foot across, rather he makes one, measured sideways stride. The right-foot is hardly in the air, unless he’s looking to save a single off a fine cut or reverse sweep, while the left-foot often remains fixed. It also helps that he stands closer to the stumps than most, doesn’t crouch exaggeratedly, and hence the upper body doesn’t hunch overtly.
But for all the technical quirks, it’s the speed of his mind that stands out the most. Sridhar credited this to a term profusely used in football—peripheral vision. “While he’s looking at the ball, his corner of the eye has already gauged where the stumps are and where the batsman’s foot is,” he’d explained. It’s more of a subconscious act, like how quality batsmen internalise the location off their off-stump. And it all adds up to help Dhoni’s one-sixteenth of a second to magic.