February 19, 2013

MS Dhoni: thrives when the knives are sharpened

Bump him up to No. 6 and see the magic unfold

You did not need to be a qualified mathematician to calculate that - as of the close of play on day four of the Chennai Test - MS Dhoni had scored 224 runs in the series so far. At an average of 224. After one mesmeric innings, Dhoni has already posted his second highest ever series aggregate, his best having come more than four years ago, on Australia's 2008-09 visit to India. Since then, Dhoni has played three Tests in seven separate series, and four Tests in two (as well as five two-Test rubbers). His previous highest series aggregate in those encounters was 220, in eight innings in England, as he led his team on their post-World-Cup "Back To Earth With A Splodge 2011 Comedown Special" World Tour. Even since his best period as a Test batsman ended in early 2010, his performances have been adequate rather than disastrous for a wicketkeeper, but, for a man who so regularly grabs ODI matches, series and tournaments by the scruff of their necks and barks at them until they call him "Sir", he has often had little or sporadic impact on Test series.

Perhaps this is changing. In his two Test innings since he elevated himself from his customary No. 7 spot to bat at 6 (or was forcibly elevated from 7 to 6) (ask him if you see him), he has scored 99 and 224. Is this coincidence, or a man reacting to a fresh challenge and the deservedly increased pressure on his captaincy?

Over the course of his Test career, Dhoni has batted predominantly at 7 in Tests - 89 innings, with two centuries and an average of 31. Batting at both 6 and 8, he has hit two hundreds and averages over 70 (in 13 and 10 innings respectively). This pattern is repeated, to an extent, in ODIs. He has batted most often at 6 - 82 innings, averaging 42, with no hundreds and a strike rate of 81. In his 114 innings batting elsewhere in the order - most often at 5 and 7, but with striking success in his few innings at 3 and 4 - he averages 58, with eight centuries, and a strike rate of 92, and he has found or cleared the boundary rope 25% more regularly than when batting at 6.

Perhaps these are statistical coincidences. Perhaps not. Perhaps India's captain is a man who thrives when out of his zone of comfort and familiarity, and thrust into novel scenarios, voluntarily or otherwise. Since the knives started being earnestly sharpened and waggled in his captaincy's general direction after India's abject subsidence in December's Kolkata Test, he has scored his first ODI hundred for almost three years, after coming in at 29 for 5 against Pakistan, and, in Tests, played a dogged if ultimately pointless innings in Nagpur, and his match-grasping masterpiece in Chennai.

Australia's green bowling attack, in which only Peter Siddle has taken more than 100 first-class wickets (but which should be far better suited to English pitches), presented less of a challenge than England's seasoned pack of proven Test performers, who were themselves toothless in their first Test in November. It would, moreover, be simplistic to say that what we saw in Chennai was a great player seizing the moment when his team most needed it - there have been too many moments since his World Cup final apotheosis have not merely been unseized as barely even tickled. But Dhoni's innings was a monument of skill and will, another spectacular chapter in one of 21st-century cricket's most fascinating personal narratives.

Seven Indians were bowled out in their first innings, the first time this millennium that the bails have bailed by the ball seven times in an innings, and the equal most occasions that bowlers have tinkled the timbers in a Test innings since eight Englishmen were castled by Kiwis in Wellington in 1950-51. No team has bowled out seven Indians in a Test innings since West Indies, led by an explosive Roy Gilchrist, repeatedly smashed the ash to wrap up India's heaviest ever defeat at Eden Gardens in 1958-59.

● In India's last four Tests, since Umesh Yadav and Zaheer Khan took five wickets between them in England's second innings in Ahmedabad, their pacers have taken 5 for 413 in 151 overs. They have not bowled much, and when they have, they have been almost heroically ineffective. Only two of those five wickets have come in the first 100 overs of an innings - the exceptions being Ishant's early bolts from the statistical blue on that comatose hippopotamus of a pitch in Nagpur.

If Ishant fails to harvest Australia's final wicket in Chennai this morning, it will be his first wicketless match in the 26 Tests he has played since February 2010. On an extremely flippety flip-side, however, it will also mean that he has taken the less than Philanderian, almost Salisburyesque, total of 16 wickets in his last 12 Tests, averaging close to 80, and dispatching a batsman pavilionwards once every 25 overs.

● Moises Henriques, batting with the poise and panache of someone who should have a higher first-class average than 30, not only became the first lower-order batsman to pass 60 in both innings of his first Test match, but also ended the three-decade wait for an Australian to score two half-centuries on debut.

In the late 1970s, you could hardly move for baggy green batsmen who hit twin debut fifties. Or at least, you couldn't if you were stuck in a bobsled with Peter Toohey, Rick Darling and Bruce Laird. Which you might have been, for all I know. Before the Australian government commissions too many 100-foot-high gold statues of the man who looks set to establish himself as the greatest ever Portugual-born cricketer, however, it should remember that passing fifty twice in your first Test is no guarantee that you will go on to serially singe the pages of Wisden with incendiary deeds of batting brilliance. Darling, Toohey and Laird between them played a further 47 Tests, posting just a single century - Toohey's 122 against a Packer-ravaged West Indies in 1978 ¬¬- and collectively averaging 29.

By way of a counter-however to that however, however, before prime minister Julia Gillard completely dismisses the plans for a giant golden Moises in every town square by 2025, they should also remember that the last three players to hit double debut demi-tons in India have been Alastair Cook, Gordon Greenidge, and Clive Lloyd. Who have scored over 7000 runs each, and collectively played 305 Tests, hit 61 centuries, and averaged almost 47.

Conclusion: Moises Henriques might or might not prove to be an adequate or outstanding Test Match batsman. As I write, at close of play on day four, he is, with a Test career average of 143, a 43.08% better batsman than Don Bradman. And 7150% better than Pommie Mbangwa. He is unlikely to remain ahead of both over the course of his career. He will be disappointed if he remains ahead of neither. (It will take immediate dismissal today, followed by 70 consecutive ducks, to get him below Pommie's career average of 2.00.)

● AB de Villiers has scored three centuries and three half-centuries in his most recent six Tests as wicketkeeper, over three months. His only half-century in eight previous Tests with the gloves had been an unbeaten 52 in his first game as keeper, against England in 2004-05. He has now scored more hundreds in his last six Tests than Mark Boucher did in his last 123.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer