June 25, 2013

Dhoni's feel for cricket

India's captain has an instinctive sense of the rhythm of the game; he hears its heartbeat acutely

MS Dhoni possesses a rare and charming combination of intuition, judgement and experience © Getty Images

As the rain came down at Edgbaston, many blurry TV hours were filled with punditry, most of it lost on the airwaves to heaven. Somewhere along the way though, someone, and I don't recall who, said something like this: "At heart, MS Dhoni is a gambler… "

If that's so, he's the man you want to be standing next to at the roulette wheel; the chips are piling up, and there's nothing his India have not won.

But is he? As anyone closely affiliated with actual professional gambling (not spot-fixing or bookmaking, but making a living from betting legally) will tell you, done properly, it is for the most part a boring and pragmatic assessment of odds and value. There are very few coups de theatre to be had.

What Dhoni did in offering Ishant Sharma the 18th over of England's innings with Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara at the crease and 28 runs required from 18 deliveries, was something altogether more instinctive, a rare and charming combination of intuition, judgement and experience that carried with it inherent risk. Here was the match, in the hands of the team's most profligate bowler.

Ishant, still coltish at 24 and with a career that often seems to be gripped by slow but inevitable entropy, was nervous - which he had the grace to admit afterwards. Morgan and Bopara had timed their charge, and both had begun to clear the boundary. Ishant began with a slow, short ball, a dot. Having got a look at him, Morgan dispatched the next over backward square leg.

Spooked now, not quite in rhythm around the wicket, Ishant bowled consecutive wides. He galloped in again, this time cutting his fingers across the ball for more control and slowing it down enough for Morgan to spoon him up wristily to Ashwin on the edge of the circle, a shot miscued to the degree that the batsmen had time to cross as it fell. Then a faster, shorter one on the line of the stumps that Bopara flat-batted straight to Ashwin, who had materialised as if by magic in the right place once more.

There was an element of Napoleon's dictum on luck about Dhoni's decision, and there is no doubt that had things gone the other way, he would have come under heavy fire

The game that was England's mid-way through the over was India's by the end, and hearteningly for all of us who love a trier, it was Ishant Sharma's, too. Dhoni applied his coup de grace, the mugging of England completed by the estimable partnership of Jadeja and Ashwin.

There was an element of Napoleon's dictum on luck about Dhoni's decision, and there is no doubt that had things gone the other way, he would have come under heavy fire. But one of his great qualities is a calm fearlessness that he has shown so often. The underlying logic behind using Ishant was sound; Dhoni knew that England would take the batting Powerplay in the last two overs, and he wanted his spinners for them. But his decision was proactively to bowl Ishant rather than Umesh Yadav or Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and that was at the heart of India's win.

It would be fascinating to hear Dhoni talk about it in depth, to know exactly where it came from. He has played so much cricket now, and so much of it under tremendous pressure, he has a deep feeling for the rhythm of the game; he hears its heartbeat acutely. It informs his subconscious, it leads what we might call intuition or instinct, but in reality it is something more weighty and useful. Let's call it intellect.

England have a great sense of order to their cricket, but they, and Alastair Cook, don't quite have what Dhoni has. It makes an eloquent argument for harmonising the calendar and allowing the players to go to the IPL and suchlike, to get game time in front of huge crowds when there is something on the line and they can absorb the kind of rhythm that Dhoni runs to. At heart he is a gambler, but beyond that, at heart he is a cricketer, in every sense of the word.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • PeterJerome on June 29, 2013, 14:31 GMT

    P Mutalik & Goorha: Excellent comments describing MSD's tactics. The thing about Dhoni, is his cool headedness, through which he sorts out his opponents by getting into their shoes and does things that can unsettle an otherwise calm mind. Both Morgan & Bopara were calm at that moment and exuded confidence in the way they went about the chase. But then, they still had that urge to get over the line, and there was no way a req. runrate of 8.33 would bother them at all. Dhoni figured it out. As intelligent batsman of their stature they would have definitely foreseen and planned for the 2 overs of JR & RA and the threat of it. Then suddenly the cunning Dhoni dangles a mango in front of their eyes... And then went for a mango in trade for the CT. This is no luck mate. This Dhoni the Psychologist at work. Amazing brain.

  • Dummy4 on June 28, 2013, 15:14 GMT

    Pradeep Mutalik has hit it squarely on the nail. The gambit simply was to do the least expected thing for (a) it lulls the opposition into believing that an idiotic decision has been taken, which was confirmed by the mindset Morgan got into and further reinforcing that by hitting that six. And (b) it placed a great responsibility on Ishant Sharma who is fully capable of bowling winners amid howlers. "Lucky" is a word used by people who find it difficult to understand the phenomenon.

  • TR on June 28, 2013, 2:23 GMT

    Very well written article and beatiful & excellent persepectives from many readers. 18th over, the ALWAYS-EXPENSIVE, BRANDED UNLUCKY and poor-death-bowler ISharma with the ball, taking 2 consecutive wkts, due to HORRIBLE shots from well settled batsmen? (remember first wkt they crossed over so fast!). You call those wickets Dhoni's tactics?? Absolutely not. It is nothing but pure un-adulterated LUCK. So let us look at just what Dhoni could have thought at that moment at the end of 17th over. I cant come out with any logic on why Isharma, except if Dhoni wanted to use that as the final nail in ISharma's career-ending coffin. Until Dhoni comes out and says the logic behind why he brought ISharma and not BKumar or UYadav I will keep calling him luncky, lucky and lucky.

  • Dummy4 on June 27, 2013, 3:25 GMT

    These are bold decisions. We have to remember that they will not work everytime. We should not go for MSD's head everytime they dont work. If they work more times than they don't, MSD has done a good job.

  • Shiv on June 26, 2013, 19:43 GMT

    I think Im seeing a totally different Dhoni since the Nagpur test against England last year. Having lost 8 tests in row, loosing the series against England in India was the biggest blow. Like many, I too though he should be dropped from the Test team, let alone captaincy. In that test match, for the first time, I saw Dhoni being more proactive and more aggresive, may be because he has the team that he wants.

  • Dummy4 on June 26, 2013, 18:20 GMT

    @shumbu ...I am not saying dhoni is lucky every time he goes into the ground. what i m saying is whenever at a crunch time he takes a terrible decision and gets away with it. That won't happen every time without luck. For example:

    1. Bowling joginder sharma at the T20 finals. With basic cricket knowledge u still wont believe that.

    2. Chamions trophy finals with Umesh & buvanesh having overs to bowl Ishant still gets a bowl.

    What would have happened if he didnt got any wicket at the over. At the presentation dhoni would have said that after all its just another game for us. It happens some times to everybody bla bla bla....

  • MANISH on June 26, 2013, 18:15 GMT

    No doubt Dhoni is the best captain of modern era. But giving sharma 18th over of the inning, provided he still had option of using yadav or kumar and considering ishant sharma went for 16 in his last over, dont know how thoughtful was that. Now when you have 3 overs with 25 some runs to play with, you will use your best bowler to bowl 18th or 19th, according to me ashwin and jadeja. If they ball tight overs and england end up needing 15 odd runs in last over, then may be its undersatnable to give bowl to whoever you want. (Whoever mean I still say yadav or kumar, not ishant). Dhoni better should explain what made him take that decision.

  • Pradeep on June 26, 2013, 17:17 GMT

    Great article, There is a game theoretic rationale for what Dhoni did instintinctively. It can be called the 'girl-with-a-curl gambit' after the young miss who was famously either very very good, or horrid. When you face almost a definite loss, it makes sense to make a move with higher variance than any other. Such a move will likely result in a more horrid loss, but more importantly, will increase the likelihood of a win from say, 1% to 5% - a very, very good improvement. If the outcome turns out to be horrid, who cares? A loss is a loss. Bringing in Ishant for the 18th over was precisely such a guy-with-unruly-curls gambit. Why Ishant and not Yadav or Kumar? Precisely because they are more consistent bowlers. Ishant with his variability and bounce had a higher chance of eliciting a mistake - as happened not once but twice. The other two bowlers, even had they struck once, would have elicited more conservative play - and England would probably have trickled over the line.

  • Dummy4 on June 26, 2013, 15:03 GMT

    I think the legendary Imran Khan comes close to MSD among great Captains. But even he won only one world cup. Ponting won world cups, but he had awesome teams full of greats. MSD has won world cups with youngsters, which none have done.