By the time MS Dhoni played his first ball in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 match against England on Sunday, India required 104 off 61 balls with six wickets in hand. Now, in today’s times when T20 cricket has pushed the boundaries of the imaginable, that might not seem to be the hardest task for a batsman. However, it’s worth noting the stat that only twice in the 21st century has a chasing team managed to score more than a 100 runs in the final 10 overs of an ODI and win it.
While assess India’s chase yesterday, we must keep this bit of statistic in mind. The odds were very long. So, it barely came as a surprise when India eventually failed to defeat England. But the post-match conversation centred not on the first defeat suffered by Virat Kohli’s team in this World Cup but on the approach taken by MS Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav in the final overs. Once the loss appeared imminent, the duo set about reducing the margin of defeat. Only two boundaries arrived in 25 balls at one point.
This Dhoni approach was not entirely unfamiliar. Four years ago at the World Cup semifinal against Australia, he protected his wicket even as the required rate mounted. The intention was to take it as deep as possible and then launch an onslaught. Understandably, it did not work against the quality Australian bowling attack. Dhoni was left with a run-a-ball 65 and Australia won by 95 runs.
The former captain has slowed down considerably since. The past acts of bravado live fresh in the memory and fans hanker for them every time he bats in a tight chase, but he’s not the same batsman anymore. In fact, India has been acutely aware of this fact for a few years now. Yesterday was not the first instance of Dhoni being unable to score quickly from the outset.
So, this must raise the question about his batting position. Why must he bat so deep? If Dhoni needs time to build his innings, he should be promoted to number four. But this is another debate that must be familiar to most cricket observers, and no change has been in sight for a couple of years. It is now accepted that the earliest Dhoni arrives to bat is at number five, and that is how things will remain for the rest of this World Cup campaign.
However, it does not help India since no middle-order batsman except Hardik Pandya has the power to boost India’s total at the death. Perhaps the inclusion of Rishabh Pant on Sunday sought to address that issue but the difference between the two sides was acutely captured by another statistic – England hit thirteen sixes to India’s one. That single blow over the boundary came from Dhoni on the first ball of the 50th over, by the time India’s fate had been sealed.
The six, of course, is inextricably tied to Dhoni. There’s nothing quite like him hitting the ball over the boundary, and everyone expects him to hit a few whenever he bats. But the current iteration of Dhoni needs time to get to the stage where he can unload. Unfortunately for him, with age, his capacity to unleash a brutal attack on the opposition has receded dramatically as well. It is difficult to say when that exactly happens, but once it does, your best instincts leave you in little time.
This is the battle Dhoni and every batsman before him have had to face. Some are able to extend their careers by exploring newer dimensions, others are bound to their game and are unable to break the shackles. This does not make Dhoni a lesser cricketer. In fact, his years of experience have helped India in other ways — Dhoni’s guidance for captain Virat Kohli and wrist-spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have proved inestimably valuable.
Nevertheless, India is stuck with a confused middle order, bereft of heft, and the question of Dhoni looming large over it. It is not Kedar Jadhav and Dhoni’s fault when they cannot score 14-15 runs per over. But India left them too many to chase on Sunday, and the necessity of going hard earlier meant that the accumulators had to negotiate an even more challenging situation later on. The problem of the correct batting approach was identified with the Indian side much before the World Cup and the chickens have finally come home to roost.
So, where do India and Dhoni go from here? We are unlikely to see any dramatic changes now but the strength in bowling should mean that the team does not find itself having to score in the excess of 300 often. And if the situation does occur, Rohit Sharma and Kohli will have to do the heavy lifting. This is the plan with which India set store and one defeat should not alter it dramatically. Dhoni, of course, can still assist in a run chase. But to expect him to blast away like he used to do in his heyday is an unreasonable expectation now.
Priyansh is a writer based in New Delhi. He tweets @Privaricate