England v India, 1st Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 4th day July 12, 2014

Dhoni's instincts fail him

Like George Costanza once did, India's captain went against his normal ahead of the first Test but on the fourth day, with a match still winnable for India, he went back to a familiar game plan

We don't know if, and how much, MS Dhoni has watched Seinfeld, but he seems to be a fan. In The Opposite, the neurotic, unemployed, socially inept George Costanza realises that every "decision I have ever made in my life has been wrong", that every instinct he has ever had has been wrong. So he decides to go against his every instinct. He ditches tuna on toast and coffee for chicken salad on untoasted rye, potato salad and tea. Things start working out for him.

He goes and talks to a woman who is a stranger, and voila she likes him. She turns out to be the niece of one of the New York Yankees' bosses, and gets him a job interview. At the interview, he speaks honestly about his previous job failures and his weird reasons for quitting those jobs, and the Yankees are so impressed they hire him. True Seinfeld connoisseurs will know that he tries the opposite once too often. When Costanza does the opposite by becoming pally with the Yankees players, he advises them to wear cotton instead of polyester, which shrinks after a wash and costs them a match. That is where Costanza stops doing the opposite, and goes back to being neurotic, miserly and paranoid.

Over the last 10 days Dhoni has shown himself to be a possible Seinfeld connoisseur. Everything he has done has been opposite of his instinct. He has never played with just five batsmen outside Asia nor has he ever batted at No. 6 in those parts of the world, but here he began toying with the idea even before reaching Nottingham.

He reached Nottingham, and saw a flat pitch feeding going against the instinct. He batted at No. 6, and scored 82. He attacked more than England did, and had the hosts down at 202 for 7 and 298 for 9. Even though there had been a bit of a partnership before stumps on the third day, he was still looking at a lead of around 100, all by going against his instinct.

As if second-guessing a Costanza-and-cotton-kids-like disaster, Dhoni was back to his instincts on the fourth day. Admittedly Joe Root had already reached 78, the partnership with James Anderson had been worth 54, the pitch was flat, but India still had more than 100 in the bank, this was the start of a new day when the batsmen would need to reacquaint themselves with the conditions and the bowling, and Root was soon going to get into the nervous period just before a hundred. Dhoni, though, went with his own, and almost every modern captain's, instinct, and told Root he was not going to be targeted by the bowlers.

It was like Alastair Cook and Angelo Mathews all over again. The spectacle died, Root knew he did not need to worry about getting out, and could easily take the single off the fourth ball of almost every over knowing Anderson had been batting well. This is one of the most annoying phases in Test cricket today: the first three balls are almost dead balls, the crowd loses interest, and the bowler is under immense pressure over the last two. Almost all the former captains present here admit to following the practice, but not as early as the first ball of a new day or for as long as Cook and Dhoni tried.

Cook got a match-losing partnership for his troubles, and Dhoni lost control of a match in which he should have been declaring just before stumps today. It would be a little harsh to blame Dhoni alone, but it all began on the fourth day with easy singles available for Root and two balls turning out to be too few to get Anderson out on this pitch. More often than not, the contest loses its fizz, its sting, when you do that. You can tell there is no tension in the stands, fielders stop chirping because you need to be close to the batsman to be able to chirp, and the bowlers begin to lose interest in the first four balls of the over.

Even when India did manage to get Anderson on strike, they veered away from their plan of bowling full and using bouncers sparingly, which got them the first nine wickets. They did get Anderson fending, but this pitch was so slow and lacking bounce that he could ride them and keep the ball down. On another pitch the plan to bowl bouncers at Anderson could have worked, on another pitch with two quality spinners in the side the plan to attack only Anderson could have worked, but not here.

Dhoni, who had been on the button on the third day, began to switch off too. In the 119th over, the 14th of the day, he did not even pull the field up with Root on strike for the last two balls. Spin was introduced too late. The short-ball plan was abandoned only after lunch. It worked immediately, just to make India in the first session look even worse.

This pitch is by all means a hopeless one to captain a side on. Even India's last pair added 111. Tailenders have nothing to fear by means of pace or bounce. Neither side has the services of a great spinner. That Mohammad Shami, his biggest bowling hope on this tour, failed did not help Dhoni. England outdid his side on the reverse-swing front, getting it to go in the second session of their bowling. India did not manage the ball that well. A swinging yorker at 90mph could have saved Dhoni and India the embarrassment, and kept their hopes of winning alive. He doesn't have it.

By all accounts, India still might have had to do with a draw had they attacked both the players at the start of the day or aborted the plan once it was not working. Dhoni can probably be forgiven because of the mixture of the pitch and his resources, but this opportunity was worth the additional risk: India had got a flat pitch in England, they won the toss, had the runs on the board, were looking to take the last wicket for a lead of 100 or so, but ended up having to bat to save the match. Maybe, just like Costanza, Dhoni should have kept going against his instinct until he actually got it wrong.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ashok on July 14, 2014, 13:44 GMT

    I do not accept the excuse given by the bowlers of "dead pitch syndrome" for their failure to execute. How did India get the cream of the England batting out so easily & then let the game slip out of their hands from 202 for 7 to 496 all out? It was not the batting suddenly coming to the forefront from the tail enders. It was lack of Killer instinct on part of the bowlers. This is where the leadership comes to the fore. A true Leader gets the best out of his team to finish the job not produce a half baked product. This happened in SA, NZ & now in England- inability to finish the job from a winning position. Dhoni's first mistake is always not having the right XI. When England has 6 LH bats, Ashwin must be the #1 choice in bowlers- not dropped! If Dhoni wanted just one spinner it should have been Ashwin. Also a 5th bowler of genuine pace like Aaron would be the answer on a dead wkt. The best choice of 4th seamer is Aaron @ 150 KPH not Binny @ 120 KPH! Logic over instinct always succeeds

  • Dummy4 on July 14, 2014, 12:08 GMT

    So easy to say as " Should have done this or should have done that", but really difficult to implement the same. Remember what Dhoni told of giving bowling to mike hussey, to bowl last over to Yuvi to defend 10 runs. So please stop blaming him for loss. i think this is why he never come in front line while posing with "Cups". Moreover he is not selected as "captain of India" for namesake, but he was given this chance as he deserve it. We always struggled in away test. Its just started. We have 4 more tests to go.

  • Sam on July 14, 2014, 7:06 GMT

    Sorry, but Dhoni is not test batsman let alone a test captain. Dhoni should retire from tests and concentrate on ODI's and T20's.

  • Kannan on July 14, 2014, 6:56 GMT

    Part 2: Why blame Dhoni? The Indian team knows nothing about preserving the shine on the ball on one side, let alone reverse swing it. No wonder the Indian pacers find themselves useless for at least 65 overs till the next new ball comes into play. We have seen this happening over the past 40 years. Indian cricket has not learnt anything at all, because the Indian experts who live in denial haven't! It's easy blaming the pitch, rather than one's mediocre understanding and application of the craft of bowling! The Indian batsmen come under pressure, because the Indian bowlers give away too many runs to the competition and can't take wickets. How then will Indians ever win Tests abroad consistently. It's unfathomable how the cricket experts rationalise that a country with 1.25 billion can't bowl pace. How does Bhuvi swing the ball consistently while Ishant and Shami can't swing an inch? How does Bhuvi take 5 wickets at 52 runs, while Ishant gives 150? And the experts call him unlucky!

  • Kannan on July 14, 2014, 6:29 GMT

    Why blame Dhoni? It's elementary that in England you need to pitch up the ball and move it, to get wickets. Ishant doesn't know how to move the ball nor does he remember the lessons taught to him of pitching up. Both Ishant and Shami were bowling at 130 kph without moving the ball, speeds which don't get you wickets unless the batsman commits a stupid error of judgement. Bhuvi showed the Indian team management that you can take wickets by merely moving the ball even if you bowl at 125kph. The Indian batting also collapsed when the ball was pitched up and the ball made to move. This will always be the script in England. Dhoni captains with these limitations. England had 4 pace bowlers. If India had 2 such bowlers, then England could have been demolished and the match won in 4 days flat. Our ex-cricketers now TV commentators are useless. They can't see the truth or dare not speak it. If you blame the pitch, it just means you CAN'T BOWL.. that's been sadly the story of Indian cricket.

  • Vinod on July 13, 2014, 12:47 GMT

    MSD does let the game drift on lots of occasions, done it on countels occasions and cost us so many test....also he does not gu/fire up the bowlers to do more than their potential. the problem is he is the best we have.....the cupboard is empty....just like our pace bowling.....

  • Keith on July 13, 2014, 9:33 GMT

    This "give the batsman the easy single so we can get the tailender out" is not just a modern style of captaincy. It has been going on for a long time. England tried that, to disastrous results, in the sixties, when bowling to Sobers and Holford. They gave Sobers easy runs to get at Holford, only for both of them to score centuries and go on to win the match. Then in 1982/83 they were at it again, giving Border singles to get Thomson, which led to Australia almost winning a game they should have lost comfortably. And others (not just English ones) have done it since. And again. And again. And, nearly always, it backfires. Why don't these captains learn?? The man you should be trying to get out is the man you're bowling to. NO batsman should be "given" a run.

  • Giridhar on July 13, 2014, 9:07 GMT

    Aah, common, if shami and Kumar can pile up 100 odd runs for 10th wicket, whats great about top order batsman root involved in 190 plus partnership. Why talk so much about Dhoni or Cook. Cricket is unpredictable sometimes. it happens. I still India played good to keep Englishmen under pressure and make cook destabilize more. This match give sgood confidence to rest of the tests for India for sure

  • vas on July 13, 2014, 7:35 GMT

    Short ball worked in this pitch. Bell got out to Ishant's short ball and Shami's short ball surprised Ali and he took the eye off the ball and got out. So Dhoni's instinct was not wrong in trying bouncers to Anderson. He tried everything that worked on the third day. It was just a freak stand of 198 on a freak pitch.

  • Martin on July 13, 2014, 7:19 GMT

    "Dhoni's instincts fail him". Hilarious. His instincts haven't failed him at all! He always captains like this abroad. India always lose overseas Test series. So it is always Dhoni's best hope when abroad to play for a draw. It is his instinct to play for a draw - and that is exactly what is happening here. So, despite this awful dead pitch being imported from Chennai and despite perfectly Indian hot dry sunny batting conditions (really very Indian conditions), and despite winning the toss, everything is in India's favour here. Despite all of this - Dhoni goes right ahead and plays for a draw. And a draw will be a good result for India too given that the last 4 times India played England the outcome was lost 2, won 1, drawn 1. We'd talk about the 4 Tests between these sides before that in 2011 - but as they were played in England and were all defeats they obviously don't count.

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