Dhoni masters numbers game to crack ODI code
MS Dhoni has been hailed as many things - India's greatest captain ever, "half the Indian team at this World Cup", the best finisher in the world, an icon and this teenage crowd-pleaser from Mark Nicholas: "an unbelievably good-looking man."
Like his trophies, the superlatives for Dhoni are piling up, their loudest round now deliciously close. Dhoni is 100 overs away from his second straight World Cup final, on the back of the most enormous odds. This one is away from home in what is considered the toughest country in the world for touring teams. Besides, the omens for India around an Australia ODI in Sydney are dire: the opposition is formidable, unbeaten by India for 10 matches this season across formats.
It is, naturally, time for super-heroics and who else but Dhoni to find his way to the centre, as he did in the 2011 final. There is a very good chance that beneath his blue India shirt rests a cape and a superhero uniform, with the letters MSD duly emblazoned. Were another name required, maybe Coolman would do. Like all true superheroes, Coolman once even had his kryptonite - it was called Test cricket. But he is past that now. Thursday's scenario is one that Dhoni's superhero self works best in: big game, big occasion, big obstacles, big opponents.
It is extremely unlikely Dhoni will be at the World Cup in 2019 but, in 2015, he has revealed a few extra shades of his ODI cricket. As captain, he has enjoyed being in his element, despite operating within ODI regulations that he has never liked and never hesitated to say so publicly. In the World Cup, he has worked with and around them, and by avoiding the usual 'funkyness' of his bowling changes and bizarre reshuffles of batting orders. This more logical captaincy may well have kicked in during India's first, hyper-energised match in this World Cup, against Pakistan, which was played in typical India mode: Pile on the runs and use scoreboard pressure to dry out the opposition and pounce on panic-station wickets.
When the mysterious alchemy of India's seam bowlers kicked in and they hit the lengths in Australia that they should always have, Dhoni was able to do more. Even without an express pace left-hander like the rest of the semi-finalists, the Indian bowling has shaken, rattled and rolled over their opposition. As the group matches went on, India faced teams lower in competitive intensity, but theirs never flagged. After the victory over Ireland in Hamilton, Dhoni was asked whether he worked best in 'experimentation' mode, using four spinners over 30 overs. Dhoni replied, straight-faced, "I'm best when the bowlers are bowling well." During that game, the swiftness of the changeovers and Dhoni's rapid rotation of spinners meant that the Indians were able to send down 22 overs in 62 minutes and knock the air out of Ireland's innings.
Mohammed Shami, relentlessly pilloried for his bowling in the first half of his tour of Australia, spoke about having grown as a bowler under Dhoni's captaincy, enjoying the freedom he had received. "If I've made a mistake, he doesn't say do this, do that, he doesn't get angry. He says if you avoid doing x, then y will not happen. It's important to have a captain with you can sort out difficulties and mistakes."
Shami didn't mention but Dhoni is extra-careful when it comes to handling the quick bowlers off the field. Internal flights in Australia and New Zealand do not allow for a large number of business-class seats; it was noticed that during the World Cup, whenever Dhoni was given a business-class seat as captain of India, that seat is inevitably handed over to a fast bowler to stretch out his precious limbs and sprawl a little. That has paid off; with the fast bowlers bursting through within the first 15 overs of a contest, Dhoni has not had to bring in the spinners early to choke the runs, and he has continued to attack. The only time Ashwin ever bowled within the first 15 overs was at Perth on a ground that suited him and gave his height the best use.
As Dhoni the captain has grown in stature and expectation, there has been another shade of grey to emerge: Dhoni the finisher. Two of Dhoni's last three innings in this tournament illustrated his skills at the death, not as helicopter axe-man but as measured risk manager.
This was not the Dhoni who would eyeball a bowler's anxiety into mush, take a match into its final few overs and then whack the daylights out of the ball and onto a stadium roof. To be fair, that version of the closer has gone missing. Or rather, he has grown older and more cautious like colleague Sidharth Monga talked about.
In his eighth year of captaincy, Dhoni the batsman has become, like the man himself, a parent. The one who knows that, après him, is a very large deluge. With Ravindra Jadeja batting like he has in this World Cup, that deluge could break down the door.
In the most nervy of chases, Dhoni uses his experience to play Professor Calculus: talking about breaking chases into small numbers of runs to get in a clump of overs three or five, and not be daunted by the run-rate required every over. It was also engineered, he said, around a "theory" about narrowing the margin between balls and runs when chasing.
Talking at length after India's victory over Zimbabwe in Auckland in a chase that suddenly turned hairy, Dhoni had explained that with every chase, provided there were wickets in hand, teams could start by trying to narrow the margin between balls to face and runs to score and try to bring them as close to par as possible. "What's important is to make the margin narrow, the number of deliveries to the number of runs that's needed." With wickets in hand, the landscape was then studied: "You have to see which bowlers are supposed to bowl, if you have a shorter end, (on the ground), which bowler is bowling well, who you can target, all of those things plays a factor." The opposite worked when batting first: the calculation then was to try widen the gap between balls faced and runs made and, as captain, ask yourself the question: What's a good defence, what can be saved?
Dhoni then went on to make a statement that only revealed how well hardwired the ODI game was into his circuitry. "It sounds very complex, but when you are in those circumstances, more often than not that it's a situation that really works out, so you don't have to put a lot of thinking behind it. It's a brain that keeps working."
It is as if Dhoni was giving the outside world a look into what went on in his head and behind that impassive demeanour during a big match. Like some algorithm was being cranked out in Dhoni's head to give him the correct numbers required at that point. To either defend or hunt down.
To hear Australia then talk about the Indians being scarred and threatened and the Sydney stats being bad for India becomes slightly otherworldly, naïve even. India's game tomorrow will not be about the past or scars or old histories. It will be about keeping the margins between numbers manageable. Never mind Churchillian or Ravi Shastri-esque speeches and or even the stuff about process.
MSD, cape and all, treats the ODI as a math problem. Bring on the semi-final, let's crunch the numbers.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo