Written by Dibyendu Barua
Chess is an individual sport and cricket a team game. The two still strike a chord. In fact, cricket at times becomes chess played over a bigger arena. In chess, a player plays with 16 pieces and commands the moves. In cricket, the captain commands his troops of 10 other players. MS Dhoni is one player who plays his cricket like a game of chess.
Before elaborating on how Dhoni does that, I should first mention that he has many similarities with Viswanathan Anand. Both are extremely cool and do their work silently. We hardly see them animated. Virat Kohli, on the other hand, is like Garry Kasparov in his aggression, body language and killer instinct. Maybe, the latter type carry a certain X-factor, but they are prone to occasional loss of composure as well. This was applicable to even a genius like Bobby Fischer.
Like Anand or Magnus Carlsen, equanimity is Dhoni’s strength. This helps them stand in good stead even when the position is unfavourable. A lot of times I could relate Dhoni’s moves on a cricket field to Anand’s moves over a chess board of 64 squares. The 2010 Anand vs Veselin Topalov World Championship title match comes to mind. The contest was tied after 11 games. In the final game, Anand played the Lasker Defence of the Queen’s Gambit. Simply put, it was the solidest of solid approaches, something which Anand didn’t usually use before. Not often does he come up with this opening and it was the final round of the title showdown. Also, Anand was playing with black pieces.
Topalov was puzzled. And when, in the 30th move, Anand sacrificed a pawn by playing f5, Topalov fell into the trap. Anand won the game on the 53rd move.
To me, Dhoni’s out-of-the-box decision to bat up the order in the 2011 World Cup final was reminiscent of Anand’s 12th game against Topalov. India were two down early and then Kohli departed. Dhoni came ahead of Yuvraj Singh and stayed there till the end to help India get over the line. It was probably for the first time in the tournament that he batted up the order. Sri Lanka couldn’t respond to the tactical switch.
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In fact, I also remember that the winning hit from Dhoni in the final was a helicopter shot, which went for a six. Somehow, it took me back to the Lloyds Masters in 1982, where I had beaten then World No. 2 Viktor Korchnoi. I exchanged his knight with my bishop and then it went to a knight-and-pawn ending, where I sacrificed the knight on the 52nd move. It was like a helicopter shot – all aggression, with little regard to defence.
To draw an analogy between chess and Dhoni’s cricket or his captaincy, I can say that he moves between attack and defence with ease. Like in chess, the Sicilian Defence is an attacking approach. It is very popular among chess players, when they are playing with black pieces. When Dhoni gets a pitch to his liking, where he can use his spinners to choke the opponents, his approach becomes pretty akin to the Sicilian Defence against the white’s king-pawn opening.
And when his team is under pressure, he tries to absorb it and waits for the right moment to hit back. You can compare this with the French Defence as far as chess is concerned. To make it simple, the French Defence with black is mostly about playing safe and waiting for your opponent to make a mistake.
We have a recent example of how Dhoni resorted to what could be called a cricketing equivalent of the French Defence. It was a match between Chennai Super Kings and Royal Challengers Bangalore in this year’s IPL. Dhoni refused to take a couple of singles in the penultimate over and went after the bowler in the final over, when 26 runs were required. CSK lost by a solitary run but Dhoni almost pulled off a stunner. He actually picked his target to perfection.
Down memory lane, maybe I can also draw a parallel between Dhoni giving the final over of the 2007 World T20 final to Joginder Sharma with Fischer’s comeback in the iconic 1972 World Championship match against Boris Spassky. Fischer had lost the first two games. In the third, he used an anti-positional move (an out-of-the-box move), which created scope for a significant counterplay. The game proved to be the turning point of the match.
Dhoni is actually like a super-Grandmaster in chess. Any Grandmaster can foresee 10-12 moves and accordingly, assesses the counters from his opponent. But the super-Grandmasters have the ability to evaluate the whole situation better than the Grandmasters in a complex middle-game situation. In cricket also, any good captain stays ahead of the game. But an extraordinary captain assesses the middle overs better than the rest in limited-overs cricket, which can be compared to rapid chess. I’m not an expert in cricket, but to my limited knowledge, no one does this assessment better than Dhoni.
Once again, I will revert to this year’s IPL; how he held back Imran Tahir—CSK’s highest wicket-taker— till the 11th over in the final. And when a partnership was building, he brought on Tahir and the leg-spinner broke the stand. I don’t know, but maybe Dhoni would have made a mark in chess also, if he were to play the sport.
Finally, as we have the World Cup upon us, we must not forget the contribution made by Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev to Indian cricket. They were like Fischer, who made chess a people’s sport. Without Gavaskar and Kapil, and without India winning the 1983 World Cup, Dhoni or Kohli might not have happened.
In Kolkata, chess boards replaced carrom boards on street corners during and after the Fischer-versus-Spassky World Championship match. The world started to take note of Indian chess after my victory against Korchnoi. Then Anand came and became the trailblazer. He took Indian chess to new heights, winning the World titles five times across formats. As for cricket, Gavaskar, Kapil and the 1983 World Cup win laid the foundation for its spectacular rise in India.
(Dibyendu Barua is a Grandmaster and three-time national champion)
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