Dhoni of old
There’s almost a sense of trepidation whenever MS Dhoni walks out to bat in the IPL these days. Not so much for the opposition, well not to the extent of dread as it used to be before, but for everyone who’s accustomed to seeing him be MS Dhoni. Which Dhoni will show up? (Results | Fixtures | Points Table)
The Dhoni of old, smashing the ball to all parts or the older Dhoni of now, who just doesn’t seem as menacing as before, or doesn’t hit them as far often enough.
It’s almost unfair on Dhoni, this expectation that he will forever remain the same destructive force with the bat. But it’s a predicament that almost every great sportsperson has to face inevitably. The wane period towards the end, when you just aren’t as good, but nobody is ready to accept it or that they simply don’t want to.
It’s just that it gets magnified a lot more in a format like T20, and especially when you are a power-hitter like Dhoni. You fail to connect with the ball, which can happen to any batsman, or an attempted heave only carries as far as the deep mid-wicket fielder, which gets highlighted only because of your reputation, and people start saying you’re finished. That you are way past your time, or even worse, that your time’s up.
On Tuesday at the Wankhede Stadium, Dhoni scored 20 runs off the first 20 balls he faced. The Pune innings till that point had plodded along at a sluggish pace, and it looked like even a total of 140 would be a bonus. Those first 20 runs included two sixes — a short-arm jab with a whiplash effect off Karn Sharma that carried over deep mid-wicket, and then a wallop off Mitchell McClenaghan that went in the same direction. That he was still scoring at a run-a-ball despite the two sixes kind of summed up the reason behind the raging debate over whether Dhoni’s still got it. For, on either side of the two sixes were a number of un-Dhoni like prods and wild heaves that resulted in 10 of the 20 balls he faced yielding no run. The last of those dot deliveries was a length delivery from McClenaghan – as part of his 26-run 19th over that changed the match on its head in Pune’s favour-that landed in the Dhoni slot, under his bat and asking to be hit in that direction he so cherishes at the Wankhede Stadium, towards the Hockey Stadium in the background.
But Dhoni missed. He had tried to hit the ball too hard, and as a result lost his shape and he then did something you aren’t used to seeing from the former Indian captain — he admonished himself animatedly, slapping the air in frustration.
The next delivery from the Kiwi pacer came at an ungainly height near his chest and Dhoni muscled it over the long-off fence, getting enough power to evade the diving Rohit Sharma. Next up was Jasprit Bumrah with the final over. There are few bowlers in the IPL who have kept Dhoni in check like Mumbai’s premier pacer, whose short-of-length deliveries have always created an awkward challenge for Dhoni.
So this time, he made a little room for himself, and made the most of the width by slapping the ball over deep extra cover. This was suddenly the Dhoni of old, putting pressure on the young bowler with the early six, and making him bowl into his area, which Bumrah duly did two balls later. This time the bat met ball just like it used to in his heyday, and it also travelled a long way towards the sight-screen at the pavilion end.
Bumrah ended the spell with two perfect yorkers, but Dhoni had scored 20 off the last six balls he’d faced. He’d shown that he might still actually have it. He’d also propelled Pune to a competitive score-with Ajinkya Rahane and Manoj Tiwary scoring fifties-and as it turned out a spot in the IPL X final.
Offie pulls the plug
It’s difficult to imagine that Washington Sundar is just 17. It’s not just because he’s nearly 6’2”. It’s also in the maturity he shows with the ball, or has shown so far in IPL X. Washington comes from a cricket-mad family. His father grew up idolizing Sunil Gavaskar and then became an ardent fan of Rahul Dravid and their more correct approach towards playing the game, and instilled these qualities in his son.
We’re yet to see whether Washington, whose sister Shailaja also plays for Tamil Nadu at the junior level, lives up to his father’s expectations and actually tries to stick to “correct” cricket even in the shortest format. Perhaps he will at least on the basis of what he’s done with the ball so far. Brought in at the mid-stage of the competition as more a bowler to thwart the left-handers in the competition, he’s transformed into Pune’s go-to man whenever they need to bottle an end up, and he’s done so by keeping it very simple. Washington doesn’t rely too much on turning on the ball, but he hardly ever gives the ball any width. It’s like fast bowling in the old days, ‘I bowl it straight, and if you miss, I hit’.
And all three of his match-turning wickets at the Wankhede came through straight deliveries that were headed towards the stumps without any venom. Rohit Sharma missed a wild attempt at a sweep to be lbw — with the umpire missing a clear bottom-edge — while Ambati Rayudu and Kieron Pollard thought it prudent to test Steve Smith’s catching abilities at short mid-wicket. They both paid dearly for it too, and Washington had three wickets in 12 balls. Mumbai never recovered from the slide despite a valiant 52 from Parthiv Patel, and before they reached the halfway stage it was clear that they would have to rely on their second-attempt at entering the final later this week.