Samir Chopra April 8, 2009

Dark cloud over Dhoni

When all the various defences about Dhoni's canny captaincy, India's dismal overseas records, the lack of a series win in 40 years in New Zealand, and the apparent incapacity of captains to plan for the weather are done with, something is still a bit

The much-predicted rain came down soon after lunch on the final day in Wellington © Getty Images

Joy to the world, an Indian team has won a Test series in New Zealand! Let earth receive her kings. Congratulations to the Indian team. And a resounding well-played to the Black Caps. But reactions to the lack of a result in the third Test, forced upon us by bad light, and a forecast-well-in-advance-rain-shower on the fifth day, puzzle me. For, Dileep Premchandran says: "I don't think you can plan for rain" and Sambit Bal says "You can't really plan around weather". As do a few comments on my regular blog. I must be living in some alternate universe (entirely possible, given that I'm in Kings County, New York State), but for as long I've watched and followed cricket, the one thing Test captains have always done is planned around the weather. They have sent out instructions to batsmen, telling them to hurry up because rain clouds are threatening; they have sent out instructions to batsmen telling them to hang in there because the rain clouds are threatening; they have hustled to get wickets or overs completed for the same reason; and lastly, they have always, always, thought about how much time could be lost to rain (or light, or morning dew) when planning a declaration, or indeed, other tactical moves.

At tea time on the third day of the third Test, when Laxman and Gambhir were walking off the field to have a cup of Dilmah Masala Chai (and possibly some complimentary batata vadas and dhoklas sent over by the local Indian tea-shop), India were 448 runs ahead of New Zealand. Let's just stop for a second and examine these figures again. At tea-time on the third day of a Test, the world's No. 3 Test team, had a lead larger than any target successfully chased in the fourth innings of some 1918 tests played in 132 years. Over the world's No. 8 team, one they had bowled out for 197 runs in the first innings of the same Test. Two days later, when the Indian team trooped off the field, they were still looking for the last New Zealand two wickets.

When all the various defences about Dhoni's canny captaincy, India's dismal overseas records, the lack of a series win in 40 years in New Zealand, and the apparent incapacity of captains to plan for the weather are done with, something is still a bit rank in all of this. Something was rotten in the fair city Wellington on Tuesday.

Why did Dhoni need 600 plus runs on the board? To set attacking fields? Why were 500 runs not enough? Because New Zealand had scored 600 runs in the first innings of the last Test? And if he wanted to set attacking fields then why didn't he set them? I didn't see fields that were consistently the hyper-aggressive fields that a captain with 600 runs on the board could set. (If you want to see aggressive fields for spinners and pacers alike, go find a video of Imran Khan's field settings during the 1982 series against England, his first as captain). If the idea was to get 600 runs on the board and go on all-out attack, then why was the Indian team's demeanour in the post-tea session on the fourth day that of giggling schoolboys? They didn't look like meanies that had put 600 runs on the board and were in your face thereafter. This slackness affected their catching as well; three catches went down on the fifth day itself. (Dileep Premchandran notes that had those been held, India would have won anyway; perhaps; but perhaps the reason they weren't held was that the team's mind wasn't fully set on winning the game as opposed to the series).

Dhoni wanted to save the match first. A win was a bonus. He didn't get it and it didn't matter to him. A series win was more important. Fair enough. Those are his objectives. But if he is going to be a truly different Indian Test captain, he will need to snap out of a conservative mind-set that has been characteristic of most that have preceded him. And part of the way to do it is to back yourself and your team to win in lots of different settings. That might include thinking that 500 runs in a fourth-innings chase is enough for most teams in the world. It has been for every team in every Test played thus far in the history of the game. That might also include backing your bowlers to not get worried if someone does attack them a bit during their fourth-innings chase. Such expressions of confidence go beyond making your own team more secure; they also send out a message to your opponents. Doing it the first time might be hard but it can rapidly become a habit. Try it, MSD. I think you'll like it. You have the team for it.

[Editor's Note: Samir will be posting a follow-up article responding to the comments.]

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on April 18, 2009, 19:23 GMT

    Well, going by your logic South Africa should have surrendered their game against Australia when it scored 434 because it was the record nobody would have dared to touch? I don't see why Dhoni is getting criticized here? Had it not rained and Ryder and Ross Taylor went around hitting the ball all over the park or had Ishant not dropped those catches we would have got a result anyways.

  • testli5504537 on April 17, 2009, 7:31 GMT

    I totally agree. But why isn't anyone blaming the match draw on Ishant Sharma?He dropped 3 vital catches that could have gotten India the game. Why isn't anyone blaming it one him instead of MSD. MSD is a strong captain and should no tbe crictised for what he did not do rather than what he did. You guys are all pathetic. I mean, COME ON!! What if they declared early and lost the match? THINK GUYS!!!

  • testli5504537 on April 11, 2009, 12:24 GMT

    Surprising to see so many bloggers defending the negative decision of Dhoni. When Dravid had done a similar thing in england 2 years back, every single person was criticising him for being defensive-no one came in support of Dravid, who had also won a test series in England after 36 years and that too without the support of a full time coach. The reason MSD is being hailed is because he has won a WC (saurabh was hailed because India were runners-up in 2003). If MSD loses the T20 crown in June, and does a rerun of his decision of the 3rd test, in a future series, all these bloggers will be baying for his blood. Poor Dravid, he was as or more effective than Ganguly as a captain in ODIs and Test, however the 2007 WC 1st round elimination will always get him labelled as a "bad" captain by the "discerning" Indian "cricket fans"

  • testli5504537 on April 10, 2009, 11:58 GMT

    Can't really blame Dhoni.

    In these days of 200 runs in 20 overs it is hard to believe 500 is a safe target with two days' slow play available.

    However, note that NZ did make more than what they did on the first innings, so the bowlers did have good opportunity. Why weren't they serious in the available time is more of a complaint than the late declaration I think. Why Zaheer and Bhajji weren't pressed into attack immediately after Tea Break? Why couldn't Sachin be tried out earlier too ? Our bowling is good but not destructive in all conditions. So, I won't blame Dhoni. Also, he showed some respect to NZ too by not declaring too soon. Remember we couldn't get even Vettori out when we needed to !

  • testli5504537 on April 9, 2009, 21:44 GMT

    I don't think Dhoni made any mistake here. It's the bowlers who were not capable of taking 10 wickets within the given time. So I don't see any point in criticizing Dhoni. Newzealand is given no, 8 in the ranking but it's a for better team that what its ranking suggests. Lots of time when India had won people used to say that Dhoni was a lucky captain(and not give credit to his captaincy). May be he was unlucky(according to me) this time to make it 2-0. That's it. And again, Dhoni would have consulted with other team members(like sachin, dravid) and coach b4 he decided to postpone the declaration. So no big deal. People are saying that if team India is thinking of becoming no.1 then it should take some bold decisions like declaring early as in this match. But I personally feel that team India is going in the right direction.

  • testli5504537 on April 9, 2009, 12:48 GMT

    Post the match, Dhoni said that he was expecting 10 more overs. Point made, match over, series won! He made sure he closed any possibility of giving away the chance of winning this series and tried winning the match from there on... it didn't pay off, so what? We still bagged the series and for the first time in 40 odd years. I guess we can stop cribbing about what it could have been, and look forward to the future challenges that this team will have to stand up to.

  • testli5504537 on April 9, 2009, 11:59 GMT

    We must criticize EVERY DAMN THING, must we? It's so easy being couch potatoes and pontificating with 'hind sight' - so safe and self gratifying! I am disgusted. Why can't we simply rejoice in the fact that Team India under MS Dhoni has achieved what several of his predecessors failed to achieve over the past few decades? He has brought that 'extra' bit to make this team worthy of vying for the crown and THAT is not enough for us the TV-watching-pundits!

  • testli5504537 on April 9, 2009, 11:34 GMT

    Samir: While I understand that aggressive captaincy is essential (at least sometimes), I would agree with Dhoni that this was one situation where preserving a lead was vital. Let me explain. India were ahead (in the series) 1-0. If (IF) NZ did manage to score around 400-450 runs (possible, yes, plausible, I don't think so), and win this test, India would walk off the field wondering why they'd declared so early. What is important in this situation is to win the series, not annihilate the opposition. A series win in NZ (or for that matter against any opposition) is what we (the fans) are looking for.

    I think you're expecting a little too much from Dhoni given that he's still in the infancy stages of test captaincy.

  • testli5504537 on April 9, 2009, 11:28 GMT

    Good article, Samir. What best Dhoni could have done is that on the 3rd day evening, he and Yuvraj should have continued batting without opting for bad light, added another 40 odd runs and let NZ batting from 4th day morning. This would have given additional 2 hours for Indian bowlers to dismiss NZ. Wasted opportunity.

  • testli5504537 on April 9, 2009, 9:16 GMT

    situation: 600 odd runs to be chased in 2 days. flat pitch. good and long batting line up with centurions and double centurions in it. 2 days to bowl the team out. weather forecasts can remain with the forecasters.

    this is what dhoni must have analysed.and he did the best under circumstances. as for his critics, analyse this; television on. remote in one hand. drink in the other. wife in kitchen, children on their own. "hello"

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