Dhoni the batsman fires, Dhoni the keeper flounders
MS Dhoni the Test batsman is like a typical small-time Indian business. Most successful businesses in India begin without a blueprint or required expertise or finances, they troubleshoot on the fly, find indigenous solutions and somehow manage to survive no matter how tough it gets. For the longest period of time, Dhoni did not want to get involved in this business of being a batsman outside Asia. On this tour, he took the leap, pushed himself to No. 6, did the unthinkable by playing five bowlers, went back for a match, came back to the original formula, and lo he came in to bat at 8 for 4 on an overcast morning at Old Trafford. His team could have been a bit more grateful.
What followed is not for the weak-hearted. This was Test batting straight from a book never read before. Dhoni stood in his stance with his back foot in front of middle stump, his head in line with off; then he walked at balls, flayed at some, left some alone, let some hit him, pulled and hooked too, and had to show for his efforts a 71 without which India would have struggled to pass 100.
Dhoni loves to talk a lot about processes. "I don't care about results as long as the process is right," he keeps repeating. His runs through third man, mostly edges, will be pointed out in saying how fortunate he had been, but given his technical and aesthetic constraints, Dhoni got the processes right. It was hard to spot, but there was method to his batting.
Dhoni is not the best judge of where his off stump is, as has often been pointed out. That is why you see him walk at bowlers, getting outside the line of off. This, though, was a quicker pitch than any India have played on in recent times, so his walking into balls was not quite advisable. Not early on in his innings at any rate. So he took that guard that had his head on the line of off, so he could leave balls that were even slightly wide. He only began to walk out of his crease when he felt he was set.
Even then Dhoni had to wear a few. He had faced 22 deliveries before he felt he could leave his crease, but James Anderson banged in a shortish inswinger. Dhoni just presented it with his shoulder. No flinching, no rubbing. And he was down the pitch again next ball. This time it saved him as he had got just outside the line to an accurate and full inswinger - it helped that he had got the inside edge as well.
All that is fine, but runs also have to be scored. For runs Dhoni went hard after every ball that seemed too full to him. Line was no criteria for his shot selection; he just drove at anything marginally too full. He did not care if he was close to the line or not, he just went hard after them. Some went through cover, some flew off the edge through or over the slips. It was not pretty, it was not about pleasure - Dhoni himself had his arm and shoulder battered - but it was someone finding ways to score runs when none were coming.
Through this series, at various points, Dhoni has threatened to come out of the shell that his captaincy and batsmanship reside in, but the wicketkeeper has withdrawn further into the shell. Yet again he refused to go for a catch that was going to be difficult for the first slip. He used to do that to VVS Laxman, he carried on doing that to M Vijay, did not spare R Ashwin or Shikhar Dhawan, and now that Vijay is back, the opener would have found nothing has changed at all.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowled a good outswinger in the fifth over of England's innings, drew an edge from Sam Robson that went a stride and a half to the right of Dhoni, and yet Vijay had to take it on the half-volley. It has happened at least three times in the last three Tests. Earlier in the day, Jos Butler dropped a catch to his right when he dived six inches too far, but at least he went for it. That might not have carried to first slip either.
It does not help when you have to keep changing that man next to you almost every series; you hardly get time to build an understanding around which catches are whose. To see no improvement with Dhoni, though, is a big disappointment. You wonder if Dhoni and the coaching team actually recognise this as an issue at all. You do not see him spend a lot of time working on it. At training he plays his football, takes a few catches, bowls in the nets before it is his turn to bat, and often that is it.
Dhoni the Test cricketer outside Asia keeps his place as captain first, wicketkeeper next and batsman last. The wicketkeeping is lagging behind now, and it is time Dhoni questioned the processes behind it because the results have been ordinary for too long.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo