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Why M.S. Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh still matter

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-06-2017 Satish Viswanathan

Whenever Mahendra Singh Dhoni walks out to bat these days, be it in 50-overs cricket or the Twenty20 version (he no longer plays Test matches), the leg-side field is well spread, with a deep square-leg, mid-wicket on the boundary and a long-on.

The bowler, who earlier used to bowl at Dhoni’s body, now bowls well outside off stump. Dhoni, whose technique is so unusual that he is generally talked of as a batsman with no technique (they say that of his wicketkeeping too, yet M.S.K. Prasad, a former wicket-keeper and chairman of the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s, or BCCI’s, senior selection committee, calls him the best in the world), would, till recently, still look to smash the ball to the on side.

In recent times, he would miss more often than not. That’s how the talk of Dhoni being “over” as a limited-overs player began; he’s too limited, was the common refrain.

What was the man’s response, as seen in the One Day International (ODI) series against England early this year and, more recently, in the Indian Premier League (IPL)? He had obviously worked on his off-side play in the off season, spending time with the Jharkhand first-class side, and it paid off.

Thus came the rare sight of Dhoni carting the ball over the extra-cover region to seal the win over Sunrisers Hyderabad off the final ball of an IPL 10 match.

The bowler, Siddarth Kaul, had all the usual boundary fielders in place, all on the on side, the mid-off was up and the ball was pitched up and wide of the off stump. The ploy failed because Dhoni, nearly 36, still had it in him to learn something new and pull it off.

He did even better against the Mumbai Indians later in the qualifier, smashing a last-minute 40, with most of the runs coming in the final two overs.

But the argument could be made, had Dhoni possessed a more traditional technique, the adaptation could have been easier. Perhaps his Test career could have been extended too, for it is in that format that technique counts most.

In what turned out to be his final Test innings, he played a crucial 39 deliveries to help his side draw the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne in December 2014, keeping the Australian bowlers at bay in his unique way.

But perhaps it was that uniqueness that did Dhoni, the Test batsman, in.

He simply had to draw on too much within him, i.e. the mental side, because physically (read technically), there were a lot of flaws.

As V.V.S. Laxman, he of the silken touch, explained in a column, Dhoni has such an unusual problem for an Indian batsman. “One of the reasons why M.S. struggles to manoeuvre the ball into gaps is because unlike most Indian batsmen, he isn’t very wristy,” wrote Laxman.

“He has a high left elbow and relies on punches for singles,” he added. Laxman believes this makes it difficult for Dhoni to rotate the strike when bowlers bowl to a strategy, such as spinning the ball away from him from around off stump.

So Dhoni has to make up by way of big shots, something he was better at in his younger days and not that good at currently, simply because he doesn’t play enough cricket.

Which is why, in a way, it’s refreshing to see someone like Yuvraj Singh take the domestic route back into the national scheme of things. Singh, who possessed the worst technique against spin for an Indian at the start of his career, should have been history by now. But he is not, thanks to his sheer determination, backed by big runs in the domestic circuit, including a career-best 260.

When given another chance in the ODI series against England, he too, like Dhoni, made it count. Unlike Dhoni, however, Singh, when on song, is one of the most pleasant sights on a cricket field. Again, unlike Dhoni, he has always had strokes all around the park and doesn’t depend on any arc. His problem lies more with his defence, especially against quality spin.

In India’s first Champions Trophy match in England on Sunday, against Pakistan, Singh’s 32-ball 53 earned him the player of the match award.

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Other cases where a batsman’s career could end prematurely is when there is too much dependence on hand-eye coordination. As in the case of Virender Sehwag, or much, much earlier, Vivian Richards, two of the most entertaining batsmen the game has ever seen.

Again, both batsmen did not possess any technique of the copybook kind, yet they were always on the right side of the ball, which in many ways is actually the be-all and end-all of technique, coaching manuals be damned.

But once the eyes went slightly dim, the hands a little stiff, there was no Plan B for some of these greats, unlike, say, a Sachin Tendulkar, who could make an entire double century after refusing to score off anything bowled on and around the off stump.

Of course, possessing too much talent, like Sehwag and Richards most certainly did, can take a toll. It’s difficult for such players to take one step back to continue moving forward, so they fade away quicker than the rest.

“What happens if you are technically good is that you can adjust for the so-called waning of your reflexes,” says W.V. Raman, a former India opener who is now the batting coach at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru.

“Technique does give you an edge, in that you can adapt to different conditions, different surfaces better than the rest, and in that sense, it can help prolong a career.”

“Let’s not discount experience though. If you talk about playing on when you are the on the wrong side of 30 (in age) or, say, for over 10 years, then what you have picked up along the way will have tremendous value. The batsman, by then, will have realized what makes him tick, or what works for him,” adds Raman, once a stylish left-handed batsman.

There is another side to this. “Some people are there to entertain in a certain way. They will want to bat in their own way or not bat at all,” says Raman, agreeing that batsmen such as Sehwag and Richards would fall in that category.

Ultimately it’s about what you want—to live and die by the sword, or to live longer by making changes to the way you wield the bat.

Satish Viswanathan is a cricket columnist who has had a stint in cricket administration as well.

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