India v Sri Lanka, Commonwealth Bank Series, Adelaide February 14, 2012

Remaining emotionless is Dhoni's virtue

When it's one-on-one between him and the bowler, when you know the cooler head will survive, MS Dhoni knows he has more than an even chance

Two nights in a row, MS Dhoni has played with fire. Twice he has come out unscathed. Tonight, though, was too close for comfort. Not only because he was up against a better death bowler, but also because along the way he had run out Gautam Gambhir, who fell excruciatingly short of a century yet again. Strikingly, it happened two nights after Gambhir had said that the previous match should not have gone to the 50th over. When Gambhir and Dhoni were batting tonight, this one seemed like an easier finish, but it ended up being a tighter squeeze than the one against Australia - it ended in a tie thanks only to a last-ball three from Dhoni off the bowling of Lasith Malinga.

It is tempting to blame Dhoni for not finishing this game off earlier, but look at the support he had from the other end. Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina, for whose sake the experienced openers are being rotated, have been failures so far, leaving a big hole in the middle order. Ravindra Jadeja is not who you ideally want coming in at No. 7, because he cannot hit big sixes. That leaves Dhoni with a lot to do after the top three are gone. India were lucky R Ashwin and Jadeja didn't have a high asking-rate to tackle in Perth, when they escaped with a win after the specialist batsmen had batted irresponsibly.

Fault Dhoni all you want for the Gambhir run-out, but you cannot fault his inclination to take on all the pressure and takes games deep. He backs himself in those situations. Not because he thinks he is the cleanest striker around, but because he backs his nerve in those situations when others around him are losing theirs. When it's one-on-one between him and the bowler, when you know the cooler head will survive, Dhoni knows he has more than an even chance. Some people can't handle the pressure for too long and go for their finishing move early, some can delay that assault. Dhoni belongs to the latter group. If he played tennis, he would surely be a Rafael Nadal-type player who you would back more and more as rallies and matches go longer.

It is fascinating to find out what Dhoni thinks at such times, though. He doesn't articulate it as well as he executes it. He was asked about his mindset before the final delivery. Four runs required, Malinga the master of yorkers bowling. Does he premeditate? Does he pick an area? Does he have shots in mind for different lengths? Does he remain blank? Does he back himself, first of all?

"Basically it is blank," Dhoni said. "As to the area where I am looking to play a shot, with Malinga it's very difficult to pick. He is someone who is really consistent with the line. He bowls yorkers at will. And nowadays you have variation: they bowl yorkers at your toes, stumps and then outside off also. If you get set for a ball that is supposed to be right on the stumps, and if he bowls a yorker outside off, it is a very difficult ball to hit.

"That's a ball that most of the batsman who slog really well find difficult to hit. So look to be blank and you back yourself. If you are not backing yourself to get those four runs, it will be tougher to get those four runs. In Adelaide, it is difficult to get a nick that goes in between the keeper and third man. The outfield is difficult, so you have to back yourself."

When asked to break that final ball down - from the point he saw it come out of the hand, when he picked the length, when he picked the shot he ended up playing - Dhoni couldn't come up with an explanation. "You don't get that much time," Dhoni said. "People always say, 'See the short ball, come into the line, open your body and play it towards square leg'. I never get so much time irrespective of whether it is Shoaib Akhtar bowling or Gautam Gambhir bowling medium-pace at me. I always find it difficult. You see the ball, hit it, look to get the runs, and feel happy."

Why does he take it so deep? Why does he wait till the end before going all out? "When you are chasing, you chase according to the amount of runs that's on the scorecard," Dhoni said. "You don't look to score 250-odd runs if 236 is the target, so what you look to do is to get it in 48th or 49th over.

"Once the wicket gets slower and lower, the ball doesn't come on to the bat [like in Adelaide], it becomes difficult to rotate strike consistently. You have to play big shots, but with big shots there is risk of the batsman getting out. It's a mix and match. In this game we were set up really nicely, but unfortunately Gautam got out and it was difficult for the lower order to come in and straightaway rotate strike."

Dhoni said he doesn't follow any routine in such tight situations or talk to himself and tell himself he has done it before and he can do it again. Remaining emotionless at such times is his virtue. What of the high after pulling wins off? "Seeing the dressing-room happy is what really gives me a nice feeling," Dhoni said. "Whatever is said and done, as long as you are winning games you are happier. You can say you played well, the opposition out-played you, but at the end of the day you feel bad if you have not won a game. It's important to win games. I always say it's not the only thing that matters, but it does affect you a bit."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Manesh on February 16, 2012, 7:41 GMT

    @Rosh1. How can you say like that. If you check the history, you can see that SL lost all matches other than 1 in Aus against India. And in all other countries too India has the upper hand. So that was just a war of words from him, right? Based on his performance in the last ODI, I can say that he need to spend more time in training.

  • Tahir on February 16, 2012, 6:06 GMT

    Captain Cool in ODIs becomes Captain Fool in Tests

  • Abhishek on February 15, 2012, 14:54 GMT

    Hey guys its not about luck,period. We gotta give credit to Dhoni. I mean is it his fault that the rest of batsmen barring Gambhir failed that night. I would like to ask Ravi Shastri who was supposedly fuming when Sachin was dropped against Australia that, wasn't the team playing that day the best XI?? Hell, Shastri wants a century from Tendulkar even at cost of losing the match. Come on man what a loser's attitude. That match showed that scoring a century does not guarantee a win but if everybody contributes even an odd 30 runs the team ends up winning.

  • Naveen on February 15, 2012, 14:49 GMT

    @jinxed1184 we are better of with a lucky but stupid captain who wins us matches than with a genius who does not win us matches. so you just chill. as far as loosing to england and aussies is concerned, that was in test cricket and you are not the only smarty pants to realize that dhoni is not as a good a captain in tests as he is on ODIs. but he is brilliant (u read it as lucky) in ODIs and we can not sack him from captaincy in ODIs because of his performance in tests. :)

  • R on February 15, 2012, 12:32 GMT

    Rohit & Raina are consistent - always getting out after getting set & scoring a few runs. Dhoni needs to reconsider his strategy - he needs to try out Rahane or Tiwary. Another option is to move Jadeja up the order and try out Pathan at no.7. This will strengthen the bowling when a bowler has an off day. A big hitting no.7 is essential. A third option could be to try out Sehwag at no.7. Dhoni needs to try out different possibilities before the big games.

  • Sushil on February 15, 2012, 11:02 GMT

    The fact is that India have this habit of losing tempo in the middle or towards the end of an innings and hand the advantage back to their opponents. And they do time and again when they are in the drivers seat while trying to "play steady" and invariably losing wickets. From 59 required off 10 overs with 6 wickets remaining, why would any team not back itself up to get those runs easily? Why do you need to play steady? Dhoni was not even trying to hit balls for runs, he was just playing off the deliveries. But at least he had the decency to admit tha he got Gambhit out; it was crystal clear anyway. I hope he has the wisdom to realize that he tries to cut it too close.

  • Dummy4 on February 15, 2012, 10:38 GMT

    Dhoni played as the situation demanded. India did not lose these two matches because Dhoni kept his head straight and backed his own ability. It does not matter how much you score as a batsman if you are not there till the end to get your team through the finish line. Gambhir might be unlucky this time (run out) but in the Aus match he has himself to blame (lbw). If anyone gets to be blamed for these tight matches that India played then it has to be the Indian middle order. In four matches Kohli, Rohit and Raina have together contributed 294 runs on an average of 24.5. No team can win ODIs if their # 3, 4 and 5 average so poorly. The lower order (Dhoni, Aswin and Jadeja) has tremendously compensated the poor show of the middle order. Lets not make a scapegoat of the man who is delivering when it matters.

  • Nick on February 15, 2012, 10:20 GMT

    Dhoni does best what's needed for win, he is the last recognized Batsman if he gets out and leave it to tailenders Indian media would start criticising Indian middle order for not being able to hold the crease for full 50 overs and wasting deliveries, players aren't perfect, Dhoni is the best keeper and captain India have right now.

  • gopal on February 15, 2012, 10:17 GMT

    @avibala - thanks for putting my feelings in words. On top of that you get MoM for doing that - amazing (Gauty scored more runs...more fulently and at better strike rate, then why dhoni - dont want same person getting it again or what?). You dont want to risk aggression and lose wicket but you can risk the whole match by taking it DEEP - LOL. He was plain lucky as he could have been easily run out on the 3rd ball leaving too much for last pair.

  • Aditya on February 15, 2012, 10:15 GMT

    I think it is just his approach to not take risks himself and I think it is a good approach. He ensures that at least he remains at the end if everybody else fails. We don't need Dhoni to be aggressive since there are already many other batsmen at the moment in the middle order who are aggressive and, if I may say so, ready to throw wickets. So it's perfectly acceptable as a strategy for Dhoni to take his time and play low-risk shots or defensively. It's an approach that won us the world cup. And anyway, every approach is bound to fail at times. On a different note, what I like most about Dhoni is that he has the courage and moral strength to say that winning is not all that matters (even if it might be a cliched thing to say). He can easily put on faux aggression and say he cares only about winning to placate many fans. But he doesn't do that and that is something to be truly admired, especially in a captain of the national team.

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