Dhoni's instincts fail him
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