Dark cloud over Dhoni
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