No keeper understands the geometry of the cricket field better than MS Dhoni. Bharat Sundaresan joins the dots on how the world’s best stumper has now cut an angle behind the stumps with the outrageously awesome 90 degrees spread of his right foot
“AREY, FLUKE tha Sri. Nothing special!” For two years, R Sridhar has had to deal with the same modesty-ridden rhetoric from MS Dhoni. So when India’s fielding coach heard it again after the India-Australia clash in the World T20 in March, he wasn’t really surprised. If anything he was expecting it. But like every other occasion in the past when Dhoni had given him goosebumps by pulling off the wicket-keeping equivalent of a trick-shot for the umpteenth occasion, Sridhar couldn’t help himself from approaching the Indian captain with childlike excitement and an “how the hell did you do that?” expression writ large on his face—only for Dhoni to play it down with unfathomable nonchalance once more.
You couldn’t blame Sridhar. What Dhoni had produced earlier that night with the gloves while having David Warner stumped off R Ashwin’s bowling was pretty mind-boggling after all. The off-break had pitched outside the advancing Warner’s leg-stump, thus leaving Dhoni unsighted. By the time it turned sharply past the left-hander’s outside-edge and Dhoni saw it was coming his way the ball was en route to striking the outside part of his left glove and bouncing off it. Realizing his predicament, Dhoni loosened his left hand ever so slightly so that the ball bounced back into his grasp rather than out of it, allowing him to whip the bails off—a phrase that probably was retrospectively coined for him—in his usually rapid fashion. But don’t forget Dhoni had less than a fraction of a second to not only gauge the situation but also adjust accordingly to find a way through it. And he managed it with no fuss.
“That is Dhoni’s genius. More than his glove-work, it’s the awareness and intelligence of the sport. He’s always ahead of the eight-ball as a wicket-keeper,” says Sridhar. And he doesn’t mind sounding slightly unctuous while insisting that Dhoni stands nonpareil as a wicket-keeper. “That’s the Mahi way, and it’s one step ahead of the regular wicket-keeping manual,” he adds.
IT’S this awareness and intelligence that Sridhar credits for Dhoni’s latest eye-catching concoction behind the stumps during the IPL—the one where he looks to illustrate the Pythagoras theorem on the cricket field by raising his right leg at a right angle to stop the ball whenever a right-hander is attempting a fine reverse-sweep or a late dab. In a way, that primordial formula that we all mugged up at some stage of our lives does hold true with this experiment too, especially because he ensures that his gloves remain in their original place. For, by creating the angle that he does with his extended foot, Dhoni does manage to double his reach while having both his hands and legs in perfect positions to stop the ball.
Dhoni’s leg-pulling hasn’t gone unnoticed by others. Dinesh Karthik has even tried aping it with some success, after ironically having been one of the early victims of this unique manoeuvre. “Once he did it to me, I thought that it was an idea that could work. If you can do it consistently, you could even have the short third-man wider and cover more space,” explains Karthik.
IN his dramatic career, Dhoni has proven to be an eponymous hero with the shots he’s played and his captaincy style time and again. While many have at least attempted to wield the willow like him, not many have dared to emulate cricket’s own Pythagoras behind the stumps. And the Mahi way with wicket-keeping gloves in hand has always come with a disclaimer of ‘don’t try this at home, school or work’. Just ask Karthik.
“You need to produce ‘give’ so that you can make your hands soft. But he’s able to create that softness even while his hands are going towards the ball, which is amazing. I’ve tried it. It is very hard. I have not been able to get close to that,” says the seasoned Tamil Nadu gloveman.
To understand the ‘give’ or the softening effect that Karthik talks about and how that distinguishes Dhoni as being one of a kind, think about catching any hard object thrown towards you with your hands. Be it for a normal person or a professional sportsman who’s not Dhoni, the natural tendency is to push your hands back upon catching it so as to cushion the blow and absorb the force while ensuring that the object doesn’t pop out. It’s physics 101.
Where Dhoni is extremely different is his ability to, as Sridhar puts it, ‘use force to absorb force’, by pushing his hands towards the ball even if it might seem like the most unnatural or counter-intuitive motion for any other wicket-keeper.
“While others use their hands to produce that give, he uses his wrists. 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,” explains Sridhar.
It’s like when you are getting off a train and the nearest exit on the platform is behind you. While all others would step out in the direction in which the train’s moving, stop their momentum and then turn around, Dhoni you imagine wouldn’t have to worry about the tiny detour. He could just as well jump straight out against the momentum of the train, and look as unperturbed as ever while doing so.
IT’S this quiddity with his hands that also makes him arguably the swiftest and most prolific stumper the world’s ever seen — he has pulled off more stumpings than anyone else in history — or as Michael Slater once coined it, ‘the fastest gloves in the west’. Because he doesn’t arch his hands back, precious time is saved by his unique movement forward. To the extent that, according to Sridhar, “It often looks like Dhoni can stop time while executing a stumping.”
“Every wicket-keeper would want to get at least 50-60 per cent of the speed at which he pulls off stumpings. He’s made an art out of it. He is the standard bearer. We are all trying to get there,” says Karthik.
It’s not only while keeping to spinners that Dhoni has reeled off some of the most breath-taking stumpings of his generation, one of his best-ever came off Irfan Pathan’s bowling in 2007 at Chandigarh when Ricky Ponting’s back heel barely moved out of the crease.
According to Sridhar, Dhoni is at least three frames quicker — keeping in mind the 100-odd high-end cameras in use these days — than any wicket-keeper in the world, and the unsuspecting batsman needs to be just one frame short of his crease to be sent on his way by Dhoni.
“He uses his peripheral vision more than anybody else. 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. Take that stumping off Sabbir Rahman in the World T20 match against Bangladesh. Not only was he quick in collecting the ball down leg and bringing it back but he timed it perfectly just when Rahman’s leg rose from the crease,” explains Sridhar.
No wonder then that when you see Dhoni appeal for a run-out or a stumping, it’s inevitable that he’s right. You almost imagine the third-umpire’s job being at risk if Dhoni ever became an on-field umpire, especially when it comes to adjudicating this form of dismissals for it’s unlikely he will ever refer an appeal upstairs.
It’s not like his glovework has always slipped under the radar, but more like it’s been taken for granted, at times even by his own dressing-room. In his two years as the team’s fielding coach, Sridhar has witnessed Dhoni practice his wicket-keeping drills on three occasions, that’s it.
“Those sessions lasted for 5-6 minutes. It was only when he wanted to feel the ball in his gloves or catch a few nicks just to get that feeling going. Nothing flashy,” Sridhar reveals.
While it’s with his hands and now even his legs that he tantalizes, it’s his presence of mind and ability to deceive batsmen that dictates the unmatched bravura of Dhoni’s glovework. And it’s not only with the Warner stumping or that unforgettable run-out of Mustafizur Rahman to complete India’s remarkable cricketing escape from Alcatraz against Bangladesh that he’s left Sridhar and the rest of the world in a tizzy.
Of late, Dhoni has also rewritten the coaching manual in terms of positioning himself near the stumps for run-outs and being a menace for batsmen approaching his end. Sridhar recalls the time he got David Miller napping last year during the 2015 World Cup at the MCG. After sweeping Ashwin towards Umesh Yadav at deep square leg, the South African left-hander was coming back for a second run, when Yadav flung in a throw that was slightly wide of the stumps. Yet again Dhoni was on hand to realize that his gloves wouldn’t reach the stumps in time to catch Miller short. Instead, he just flicked the ball on to the stumps. In the dug-out, Sridhar and the rest of the support staff were rubbing off goose-bumps.
“It’s magic almost at times, and we just wonder how when 100 things must be going through his head, he can come up with such a game-changing play,” says Sridhar.
But it’s not always magic from Dhoni. At times, he can turn illusionist too, and mislead the unsuspecting batsman into believing that he’s in no danger. Mitchell Marsh was left hoodwinked recently in an ODI at the MCG again this year. He was running back for a second and as his back was turned, he had no idea which end the throw from mid-off was coming to. His only hint was through looking at Dhoni’s reaction. The Indian captain though simply stood still as if he wasn’t even expecting the throw at his end. But before Marsh could even realize what had happened, Dhoni had collected the throw and knocked the stumps out, leaving the Aussie all-rounder looking like someone whose pocket had been nicked without him even realizing it.
“That’s cricket intelligence. If he would have gotten into position earlier, Mitch Marsh would have run faster,” recalls Sridhar, the awe in his voice very evident.
But Dhoni the wicket-keeper hasn’t been without his flaws, especially when keeping to seam away from home, England in particular. Not only did he often struggle with the late swing in those conditions, he was also guilty of not going for catches that came between him and first-slip, very often not even making an effort to go close to the ball. His bizarre penchant to stand still and see these kind of chances at times apathetically will always stand out as a sore thumb in his otherwise special wicket-keeping career. Sridhar reveals that even in England—and at times when Ishant Sharma was jagging the ball around—Dhoni did try his own unique methods to tackle the late movement.
“Dhoni never stops improving or adding new facets to his game. I have seen him take some diving catches off seamers in this IPL, and he did that in last year’s World Cup too,” says Sridhar.
But with his Test career well behind him, Dhoni no longer has to worry about the red-ball, Ishant or even a slip-cordon on most occasions. He can now focus purely on leaving many more hapless opposition batsmen and his own dressing-room shaking their heads in disbelief as he continues to defy physics behind the stumps–even as Sridhar and the world try in vain to decipher the science behind Dhoni’s ‘fluky’ experiments.
* In shorter formats, while batsmen are putting pressure on his outfielders, Dhoni is messing with their heads, by not giving away any hints of which end the throw is coming to and banking on his speed of getting the ball to the stumps.
* Dhoni’s positioning for run-out opportunities is based on one principle alone—the position he is best placed to get the ball to the stumps in the quickest time. At times though when he believes that the batsman might get in, he changes his mind in the last frame and drops the ball on the stumps to catch him short.
* Dhoni has mastered the ability to loosen his hands as per the need of the hour, especially when there’s a lot of turn. Like with David Warner’s dismissal during the World T20, when the ball isn’t heading into the centre of his gloves, he loosens the necessary hand so that the ball bounces back in rather than out.
* Dhoni seems to know when a batsman will lift his foot from the crease. If like Sabbir Rahman in the World T20, he does still take chance, Dhoni’s speedy hands does the trick.