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At No. 4, Dhoni makes it win-win

Wisden India logo Wisden India 24-10-2016
© AP Photo

Though cricketers generally feign ignorance about ever coming across anything written about them in the newspapers and on websites, it wouldn’t have escaped Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s attention that his cricketing epitaph had been penned in many places, suggesting India’s greatest finisher was finished.

The first Twenty20 International against Zimbabwe in the summer, which India lost by two runs, was one game where critics felt he was past his sell-by date, when he was at the crease for the last over requiring eight runs off six balls and unable to chase it down. Similarly, the first T20I against West Indies in Lauderhill in late August which India lost by one run was also used as a stick to beat Dhoni with, where again the Indian limited-overs captain was out there but unable to see the side through.

And yet again, in the second One-Day International against New Zealand in the ongoing series which India lost by six runs, there were quite a few fingers pointed at him. This time, it was for batting too slowly — he eked out 39 off 65 balls at a strike-rate of 60 — although the openers themselves had fared worse at strike-rates hovering around 50.

Therefore, Dhoni was a content man at the end of the third ODI at the IS Bindra PCA Stadium on Sunday (October 23), after India won handsomely by a seven-wicket margin. Batting at No. 4, a long-held desire of his, he kept New Zealand at bay with a steady 80 off 91 balls alongside Virat Kohli’s masterful hundred. There was a noticeable clarity with which he went about his knock. More importantly, he didn’t chew up balls and have to restrain himself, something he suggested was somewhat unavoidable when batting at a lower position.

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“Whenever you score runs, you’re happy,” he said. “The important thing was to go out there and express myself. It’s one thing I wanted to do for a long time. If you’re batting at No. 5 or 6 and the top order is performing brilliantly, what happens is you don’t get a chance to bat how you want to bat. Often, you’ll get in with the last 10-12 overs and you try to slog and get as many runs as possible. The other way around, maybe the 20th over, you’ve lost five wickets and you go into bat, you’re looking for a partnership.

“If it keeps happening for a long time, the tendency is you don’t fluently rotate the strike. That’s what was happening with my batting and the intent of playing the big shots. When you know there’s only one batsman after you, you’re actually weighing a lot of things. You have to be close to 90% sure when you step out and look for a big hit. It becomes more result-oriented. I’ve always said process is more important, but that’s where it becomes more result-oriented. That has happened to my batting to a great extent.”

There were six fours and three sixes in Dhoni’s knock, but what was significant was that the first boundary, a powerful hit off Tim Southee, came off his fifth ball when he charged down the wicket. Southee, mind you, had just taken the wicket of Rohit Sharma and conceded two runs an over earlier. Furthermore, he’s no military medium trundler. A bit more respect wouldn’t have been out of place, and more likely than not Dhoni the No. 5 batsman would have been more deferential. But Dhoni the No. 4 batsman? He was hardly bothered about such niceties.

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“Batting at No. 4, it was important to play the big shots,” he elaborated. “It was important for me to start with a positive intent, which meant taking a bit of risk. It could’ve been the first shot which I could have got out to. That’s the risk you can afford to take if you’re batting at No. 4, if your team is batting till No. 8. I feel that’s the kind of thinking that’s required at this point in time.

“It gives a chance for other youngsters to bat down the order, what really needs to be done, how calculative they need to be. There’s one way of chasing which is hit, hit, hit and ultimately you achieve the target. Often on slower wickets, that’s quite hard to achieve.

“Overall, I feel it’s good for everyone — personally good for me too — if I go out there and I’m not thinking too much of what needs to be done. Rather than that, I’m looking to set the pace of the game. Quite a few oppositions put all the fielders inside and I’m still looking to pierce the field. I can play the shots over the fielder and I feel that was something that was needed in my batting. Today was the first day of that and I hope to continue this.”

Dhoni said he discussed the move up the order with the team management, keeping in mind that there weren’t going to be too many opportunities for him — the next ODI series is in January next year against England — to see whether it would be a good fit or not within the current team set-up. “There was a conversation with the team management about what are the things we want to do and one of things was for me to play free cricket,” he explained. “Often when you’re batting down the order, you can’t play free cricket. I’ve batted down for so long, I always play to what the situation demands.

“With more and more games, I keep getting better and better and that’s what’s important for me. To see the number of games available for me — okay, this is a five-match series followed by three against England and three T20Is — that’s not a lot of limited-overs cricket. I’ll go and play the domestic 50-over games. Overall, there’s not a lot of limited-overs cricket, so I need to make the most of it.”

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Adding to the fact that Dhoni isn’t playing Test cricket anymore is the point that he has made several times now, that in past one and a half years, India’s top order has been brilliant, perhaps too brilliant. It’s made it increasingly tough for anyone coming lower down to have a chance to bat, the youngsters as well as himself. “Virat is someone who has batted very consistently,” he pointed out. “Rohit has done really well in the shorter format. Shikhar (Dhawan) has done well. Which means I wasn’t getting the kind of batting that’s important for me to be fluent in the rotation of strike.

“I also feel in the last one and a half years, I’ve not got enough chances to bat. The deliveries really matter, you want to play a lot of deliveries. I feel the best chance for me is to go up the order and face as many deliveries as possible. It was a requirement very important not only for my cricket because I’m successful at No. 4, it gives the team a bit of a liberty because I try to score at a decent pace. Today, I felt I slowed down a bit, but it’s important for me to keep playing the big shots.”

So does this mean Dhoni the captain feels Dhoni the batsman should continue batting at No. 4? It’s a tricky one. He’s aware that he’s being a bit selfish, but rightfully so. As Ravi Shastri, the former India team director, once colourfully put it, “Don’t you think it is about time? He has done the dirty work for donkey’s years.”

Sometimes, being selfish is the most selfless act you can do for yourself, self-help gurus will tell you. But Dhoni has been selfless for so long now that it’s an odd feeling for him to put himself first, which was quite evident in his closing statement on the topic.

“Overall, it’s a win-win scenario for everyone,” he mused. “This batting is something that’s more of my need rather than the team need. I still feel there are others who can bat at No. 4 in the team. The problem is: is there anybody who can bat at No. 5, 6, 7? Only time will tell.”

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