“Last two,” Rohit Sharma shouted before almost apologetically breaking into a smile. MS Dhoni obediently listened to his captain’s call and played just two more deliveries at the nets. The former India captain had a pretty longish net session at the ICC Academy ground on Sunday. He was timing the ball well save a few deliveries from Avesh Khan that hurried on to him off a length.
Dhoni of his earlier vintage might have brought on the ‘helicopter’ to give those skidders a whack. But at 37 years of age, he no longer plays his trademark shot too often. Dhoni, the batsman, had a fantastic IPL for Chennai Super Kings this term, where he scored 455 runs in 16 matches at a strike rate of 150-plus. In international cricket, however, he has become inconsistent by his lofty standards. In South Africa earlier this year, the former captain had just one significant knock of 42 not out in the ODIs. In England, too, he struggled to get going, when upping the ante became the need of the hour.
A strike rate of 63.20 in the ODIs in England attested a slump. In fact, Dhoni’s last match-winning contribution with the bat came against Australia in Chennai in September last year, when his 79 and a 118-run partnership with Hardik Pandya set up India’s victory after the hosts had been reduced to 87/5.
Over the past 10-odd months, Dhoni has scored 389 runs in 21 ODIs and, more often than not, he looked a grafter. From that perspective, the Asia Cup could be an important tournament for the Indian team’s senior-most player. Although he has nothing to prove to anybody, a below-par batting performance in this tournament might send the jury on an overdrive.
Then again, Dhoni is a lot more to this Indian team than his batting. His glovework still remains unparalleled. Rewind to the England versus India ODI at Leeds just a couple of months ago and how Dhoni had affected James Vince’s run-out. Yuzvendra Chahal had bowled to Joe Root and the batsman pushed the delivery to mid-wicket for a sharp single.
Pandya swooped in and fired the throw, which was a tad wayward. Dhoni was off balance. He collected the ball with his right glove and removed the bails in a single motion. It was a stunning piece of wicket-keeping. Twitter went into meltdown.
The fact of the matter is that India’s wicket-keeping cupboard is bare. Dinesh Karthik’s sensational eight-ball 29 not out in the Nidahas Trophy final in Colombo earlier this year gave goosebumps.
But his struggles both in white-ball and red-ball cricket, and also behind the stumps, in England exposed his shortcomings in challenging conditions. Rishabh Pant scored a brilliant hundred in the Oval Test. But he has a long way to go to become a top-class stumper. Pant is young and will improve. But the next World Cup is about nine months away and will be played in England. This makes Dhoni almost indispensable.
Wise head on shoulders
Throw in his cricketing acumen and Dhoni becomes the go-to man for every Indian player for advice, including Virat Kohli, in tough situations. The emergence of Kuldeep Yadav and Chahal in limited-overs cricket is arguably the biggest positive for the Indian team over the last one year. And both have credited Dhoni for their steady rise.
“There is no one better than him (Dhoni) to judge you because he is watching from behind the wicket and he keeps telling me what I need to,” Yadav had said in Sri Lanka last year, adding: “There is no word to describe MS Dhoni’s influence on a young bowler like me. If you interact with him like I have been doing for the last six months, there is obviously so much to learn from him.”
Over to Chahal and this was what he had said after picking seven wickets in the first two ODIs in South Africa, including his maiden five-for… “From behind the stumps, Mahi bhai always keeps advising you. He knows what the batsman is going to try. It makes it easier for us.” The two spinners have developed an excellent understanding with the veteran ‘keeper and two dismissals during the home ODI series against Australia last year provided perfect examples. Stump mic had picked Dhoni urging the leggie to bowl wide outside the off stump to Glenn Maxwell after the latter had hit a six over deep square-leg. Chahal tossed the next delivery up wide outside the off stump, and Maxwell holed out to long-on, slogging across the line. In the second ODI at Eden Gardens, Dhoni spectacularly stumped Maxwell after advising Chahal to fire one down the leg side.
The team management will hope Dhoni regains his batting mojo, which would be India’s biggest takeaway from the Asia Cup.