Dhoni's batting is an art in its own right
Watching MS Dhoni is not aesthetically pleasing, but it is fascinating in its own way. Sometimes ugly is beautiful. If you have never watched a game of cricket, and you are told to pick up a block of wood and hit the small leather thing that's hurled at you, you are unlikely to make beautiful batting arcs; you would just get into a position that comes naturally to your body and hit the ball. Dhoni comes close to being a natural in that sense of the word.
He doesn't normally flick; he drags. He doesn't drive fluently; he shoves. He doesn't cut; he chops. He doesn't sweep; he hammers. He doesn't lean forward; he lunges. He doesn't defend; he stabs. He doesn't swing to the on side; he muscles and heaves. He doesn't upper cut; he carves. His most famous shot is the helicopter-whirl - a bottom-handed twirl that sends full deliveries from outside off to screaming fans beyond long-on. Even genial farmers might take offense if you call him agricultural, so we shall stick to natural. Is he effective? You bet he is, as he showed today.
It wasn't quite a crisis when he walked in, but three quick wickets had fallen. He chose to counterattack: he moved from 2 to 18 with four boundaries - a whipped-drag past mid-on, a carve over point, a shovelled hit over the covers, and a whipped drive through mid-off. A moment arrived, soon, which captured his style of batting perfectly: he opened the bat-face and steered a Tim Southee delivery that straightened after being angled in between the keeper and wide slip. It wasn't an edge. What wasn't clear was whether it was just a late adjustment to the straightening of the delivery or if he had the gap in mind? Dhoni often leaves you similarly confused about his intentions behind a shot. Often, there were cries of "catch it" from the New Zealanders when Dhoni hit them in the air, but it invariably climbed over a fielder or flew through a gap.
His contest with Daniel Vettori was interesting. In the second Test in Hyderabad, Vettori had done him in the flight; Dhoni had lunged forward to a ball that dipped on him and ended up scooping it to short extra cover. One wondered whether Vettori would look for a similar dismissal today. But it was not going to be as easy as tossing it up on a length. Vettori explored all options, but Dhoni was unmoveable. He ruled out lbws by rarely getting the front leg across. When he wasn't sure of the length, he went on to the back foot to defend. When he was sure it was short, he moved back and cut or punched. When Vettori pitched it fuller, he lunged forward to bunt. As he moved towards his century, Vettori, it seemed, had given up and started to bowl a leg-stump line from over the wicket. Soon, though, cramps forced Dhoni to bat with a runner and Vettori jumped at the opportunity. He went round the stumps and tossed one up on a length. Dhoni lunged out and scooped a return catch. By then, though, Dhoni's unorthodox style had pushed India towards a big lead.
Dhoni's real test will come on India's tour of South Africa. How he responds to crisis situations - he has often failed under pressure in recent Tests - on those pitches will define him as a Test batsman.