The other day, after the Afghanistan game, Sachin Tendulkar urged MS Dhoni to show “positive intent”, but one fears it isn’t a matter of intent as much as it is of ability and confusion over his self-defined role. What is Dhoni now? A revivalist of mini-crises in middle overs, an end-overs destroyer, someone who stitches one end up? All those roles need two traits: a remarkable self-confidence under pressure (which he has), and the skill set to match that (which is now waning).
A maverick marauder, captain cool, exploder who tamed himself into the greatest finisher of all time, greatest stumper of all time, uber-brand… dog-instagrammer, daughter-instagrammer — and now a human, like the rest of us. There is a tenseness, a tightness, in his batting, not seen before. A hesitancy in mind.
Dhoni now has two problems: hitting immediately on arrival at the crease, and hitting good bowlers on song. In his pomp, the decision not to swing away when he was new to the crease was a choice. His will. In his control.
He made procrastination feel sexy. An art form. There weren’t any doubts that he could if he wanted to, if the situation warranted. Now, that is in doubt. The recent past has lot of examples, but episodes from this World Cup will do as well.
Against Pakistan, he made the decision to free his arms as soon as he came. But it wasn’t one of the IPL seamers but Mohammad Amir, who slanted it away from a length. Dhoni edged his attempted heave and was caught by the wicketkeeper.
Next game, of course, was against Afghanistan where he did what he does: stretched, pulled, waited, dragged the game on and suddenly realised 250 was now a blur if he didn’t do something about it. And so, he tried but there was a whiff of desperation about it. He ran down the track and launched himself into a slog, both feet in the air, and was stumped for the first time in eight years.
With anyone else, it would be a meaningless stat. With anyone else, that shot wouldn’t have registered. A typical dismissal of a batsman looking for runs. But such is Dhoni’s aura, such is his remarkable past, that it makes one wonder. Was he desperate there, a word that didn’t seem to exist in his headspace?
That tightness, let’s focus on it now. But before that, it’s prudent to describe his difficulties of a couple of years and how he sorted them out.
The essence of Dhoni’s batting is balance at the crease. When that goes awry, his game is affected. Back in those troubled days, he employed a trigger movement with his backfoot – nothing major but it was tilting his entire balance. He then had to drag himself forward for length deliveries which meant his hips would be opened up – which meant the bat came down at a wider angle which didn’t allow him to hit cleanly. He would get almost locked and the hips would open up too much. Not good for most batsman, not ideal for Dhoni’s style.
There is a story recounted by Prasanna Agoram, South Africa’s performance analyst and who has worked with Dhoni in IPL. How he had feverishly, diligently prepared all his slides and course-corrective measures and would keep approaching Dhoni with them.
Not much luck. A smile, ‘some other day’, and he couldn’t move beyond small talk. One day, he said ‘okay, come tell me but remember, nothing heavy. Keep it simple.’ He heard the analyst out and told him to come next morning and watch him at the nets.
Dhoni did his thing, Prasanna did his thing. Things started to improve. In Prasanna’s mind, Dhoni had to stand more upright and cut out the backfoot movement. He doesn’t take credit for it, sees himself as one who observed more than influenced, but those two features started to appear in due course. Prasanna would write later in this newspaper, “The downswing comes from outside the eyeline, too far away from the body that he actually has to drag the bat in, and he ends up a touch open-chested, the hip rotation isn’t smooth.”
Last year when Prasanna saw Dhoni on the telly during IPL, he liked what he saw. “He stood a bit upright, and the bat-swing came down in a straight line. The front shoulder remained high due to his upright stance, and didn’t drop down at all. The bat came down in a straight line, the hip rotated smoothly, the follow-through of the bat was full, and despite the full-length of the ball, the bottom hand kicked in enough to generate the power.”
Problem solved, the sixes returned. The swagger returned. And the Chepauk crowd would throng in their thousands just to see him biff around at practice. It was the age of Kohli but in the IPL world, Dhoni was still the king. Rather, is still the king.
But here is the rider. That phase felt different as it was clear that was a technical problem – and players like him usually get over such trivialities. Especially, Dhoni with his clarity of mind. So, one didn’t fret too much about it.
Now, the situation is different. It isn’t just a technical issue; it doesn’t involve trigger movements and such irritants. It’s about how he feels – the ageing, the inner clarity.
Here is a debatable hypothesis: Does he feel more in control than he actually is? Is he like Amitabh Bachchan of the 1980s, when he still thought he was the Hero but market reality proved something different. He then had to retreat, reinvent himself and come back. Is Dhoni biting more than he can chew? Only he will know the truth but that’s the feeling one gets.
Now where does one see the problem in his batting? He is pretty fine with short deliveries. He swivels, uses his body to place himself in the right position and then helps it along or crashes it to the square-leg boundary. The short ball, as of now, doesn’t upset his balance. All he needs to do is a hip-swivel.
Deliveries from a length (from good bowlers) are a different challenge, though. When it seams around, obviously. He is almost loathe to get forward, worried as he is about his balance. When he does, he can defend it of course, but when he tries to heave, things can go wrong as it did against Amir.
And so, he waits. Tick tock, tick tock, the overs go by. In IPL, with the presence of bowlers who aren’t that good and even with the good bowlers, the pressure of a T20 match is something different. They come on for an odd over, then stop and do it all over again later — not many can do it. So, one will see now Dhoni trying to capitalise at the start of a new spell from a bowler. He has the smarts to work it out in that manner.
But he can’t delay it and think he can make it up later. Match banake, phir maarna. That will still be his modus operandi, of course, but a bit smarter in the way he goes about it. No one senses moments in a game like him. One can see it on the field when he is the wicketkeeper. When he calls a bowler for a chat at the end of an over. When he intervenes to set a particular field. Or to bring on a bowler. He has retained that in his batting as well – that’s why he chose to go after Amir, that’s why he decided to go after Rashid Khan, but then it depends on his skill living up to his intent.
The team management too needs to set his role more clearly. He can’t be the floater, drifter, attacker, anchor, finisher – a bit more clarity will help. It will be utterly fascinating to watch him from here on. If the West Indies bowlers continue with their recent error of bowling consistently short even on slow tracks, they will play right into Dhoni’s hands. If they move it off a length or nip it here and there from back of a length, it would be interesting to see Dhoni’s approach. A self-aware Dhoni, one who knows his limitations, is the one that the team needs.