India v Pakistan, 1st ODI, Chennai December 30, 2012

Confident batsman, cautious captain

The first ODI against Pakistan epitomised how much Dhoni's safety-first approach has benefited him as a batsman, while shackling him as a leader
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It was the end of the 40th over of Pakistan's chase. India had jousted their way back into the contest through a frugal Powerplay, which cost just 13 runs and accounted for Misbah-ul-Haq's wicket. Ishant Sharma and R Ashwin had bottled up the new batsman, Shoaib Malik, who remained run-less after eight balls. The equation narrowed down to 55 off 60. For the first time in two hours, the near-full stadium was buzzing. The contest assumed a whole new complexion, even as Chepauk's canopied stands glistened under a gorgeous sunset.

India could have nosed ahead with another wicket at that stage. MS Dhoni had nine overs to come from his main bowlers, who had all bowled impressively. Yet, he turned to Virat Kohli. At the game's most pivotal moment, with a contest waiting to be taken control of, Dhoni thought it wiser to get the one pending over from his fifth bowler out of the way.

Kohli trotted in, allowing seven runs off the next five balls. Just like that, there was release - Shoaib Malik began to get the ball off the square, and Pakistan were flowing again. By the end of the next over, the fight was collectively knocked out of India when Ashwin dismissed Malik off a no-ball.

As captain and as batsman, safety-first has been Dhoni's mantra for a while now. This game epitomised how much that approach has benefited him as a batsman, while shackling him as a leader.

India's disastrous run in Test cricket, and their indifferent ODI form since the World Cup, have led to all sorts of questions being raised about Dhoni's role in the set-up. The Test argument is for another day. As far as ODIs go, Dhoni is now the best batsman in India, and arguably the best middle-overs man in the world. Today he marched past 7000 ODI runs, while averaging 52.00 per innings. That's seven runs clear of Sachin Tendulkar's average when he got there, and a whole 10 runs more than Ricky Ponting's. And despite restraining himself in the middle overs in recent years, Dhoni has got those runs at a strike-rate of 88.45. Those are the stats of a master.

When Dhoni took guard today at 29 for 5, Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan were getting the ball to dance devilishly off the seam. Each of India's top four had lost his stumps, undone by nip and zip, but Dhoni thrived by falling back on first principles. In Tests, Dhoni is prone to the odd waft outside the off stump, but he's so much surer of himself while starting an ODI innings. Overnight rain, spicy pitch, extra bounce, crisis situation - no problem. Dhoni stayed on the crease, covering the line and playing with a straight bat, nudging and gliding singles, and running like the wind. His first boundary came only after 78 balls, which had yielded a mere 34 runs, but he changed the rhythm with seamless ease in the end overs.

Unlike his younger colleagues, Dhoni likes to tuck into the short stuff, climbing over the bounce and pulling powerfully whenever the chance comes. With dehydration sapping him of his speed, Dhoni opened up emphatically in the second half of his innings. The inside-out six off Irfan that brought up his hundred captured the essence of Dhoni's batting - it was brutality at its most beautiful.

As a batsman, Dhoni always backs himself to take the game deep and turn the tables in the end game. It's a marked difference from how he played when he first emerged at the highest level; with seniors such as Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and, now, Sachin Tendulkar, exiting the scene, Dhoni has assumed more responsibilities as a batsman.

As a captain, however, the story is vastly different . Several India captains of the past - be it Mohammad Azharuddin (in Perth and Kolkata), Sourav Ganguly (in Ahmedabad) or Sachin Tendulkar (in Mohali) - have shown the imagination to attack with their best bowlers when the game is in the balance, even if that meant holding a weak over for the end. With Dhoni, especially in the last couple of years, you'd be hard-pressed to single out one such instance.

It's not just the handling of the fifth bowler. Nasir Jamshed betrayed a diffident approach to the short ball early in his innings. Dhoni responded by pressing backward square leg into service, and getting his seamers to bounce Jamshed. They had him hopping for a while, but eventually Jamshed began to settle down. By the end of the chase, he was displaying as much assurance against the short ball as Dhoni had shown earlier in the day. That, however, didn't stop Ashok Dinda and Ishant Sharma from trying to bounce him out, seemingly at the cost of trying something else.

Through turbulent times, to his credit, Dhoni hasn't shunned his responsibility as the face of the team. As much as he receded into the background when his team was winning, he is now in the forefront taking the blame for the team's reversals. "I feel good that I'm the punching bag because there's less pressure on the team," Dhoni said after this defeat. "You need to have a few punching bags in the side. Sachin has been there for quite some time now, he takes away all the tension. I don't think everybody gets chance to be the punching bag, so I am happy that I can take a bit of tension for my team."

Tendulkar is gone, and with him India's last link to a different time in the ODI game. Dhoni the batsman facilitated a transition by reinventing himself. Will the captain follow suit?

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on January 2, 2013, 18:01 GMT

    The innings he played vs Pak in the 1st ODI was long overdue, and it was awesome to watch. I feel he needs to be relieved of the Test captaincy after the Australia series, way too much burden. Captain in all three formats, wicket-keeper in all three formats, and the same in IPL. What's more, he's under pressure to contribute as well, we need to give him a badly needed break!

  • dummy4fb on January 2, 2013, 12:27 GMT

    what about the drop catch at 16?

  • Desihungama on January 1, 2013, 16:46 GMT

    The Kohli gamble would have worked if it was a high profile tournament. We all know how Pak performs when it comes to games that actually matter. Sigh!. These bilateral series only boost one's record against each other. This game was never India's to win. You should be glad you found Bhuv (Contest between him and Azhar was mouth watering) and appreciating Dhoni heroics for making a game out of what was heading to be 20 over ODI. And the ball was mostly seaming not swinging, when Junaid bowled. Devastating! And by the way Azhar Ali was telling Indians what they did wrong earlier in their innings, see off the new ball. Play back foot, not forward.

  • dummy4fb on January 1, 2013, 12:30 GMT

    Time to introduce fresh blood such as Unmukt Chand(19) and Smit Pate(19). If you get them into the scene early enough they will become great batsmen, for eg. Pakistan got Ahmed Shehzad to debut when he was 17. India should get Wasim Jaffer(35) and Cheteshwar Pujara(24) for stability in the line up. Pakistan should drop Younis Khan and give a chance to Imran Farhat as he's some serious talent. The proposed India Line-up: 1.Wasim Jaffer, 2.Unmukt Chand, 3.Virat Kohli(captain), 4.Cheteshwar Pujara, 5.Manoj Tiwary, 6.Suresh Raina, 7.MS Dhoni(wk), 8.Irfan Pathan, 9.R Ashwin, 10.Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, 11. Ashoke Dinda

  • dummy4fb on January 1, 2013, 10:29 GMT

    This is classical "if has done that" situation. Dhoni is down on his luck. If his gamble with kohli had worked, this would have been brilliant decision making but since he lost, it sucked. but let me ask this to the "geniuses", would you give one of last couple of overs to kohli?

    if he had done that and kohli gave away like 15 scores, then it would have been his fault of "why he didnt save enough regular bowlers overs".

    So my friends, if you have lost the match, then no matter however much wiser decision you have made, you should have done something else. And I can relate to it pretty good. I am pakistani. We kicked out our 50+ batting average and one of the most successful captain because rest of the team didnt do well and he was to blame (Im talking about inzi's retirement after WC)

  • PkRules on January 1, 2013, 5:37 GMT

    This is coming from a Pakistani. I am big fan of MS Dhoni and I believe that the criticism on him being a cautious captain is not correct. A captain has to make tough calls and there are times when these calls do not go in your favor. So I believe that the criticism is not justified for being cautious. What MS, the Indian team, and BCCI should be criticized for is the mindset of not taking ownership of the failures and making efforts to overcome them. It seems like that it runs in BCCI culture to always put forward excuses when you loose. It is either the pitches, the umpires, the weather, the toss, the poor decisions, the dew, or something else that caused India to loose. Nobody is man enough to take the responsibility of the failure. It is this attitude that lost them the series against Australia and England. After all, Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

  • dummy4fb on January 1, 2013, 5:30 GMT

    1 thing i dont understand how a captain is to be blamed when in an inning his 5 out of 6 batsman and 3 out of 4 bowlers couldnt perform. Same thing was happening in test cricket, if you dont score more runs in matches how would you chase or defend a total. How a captain can use his expert advice to tell batsman to play right shots. he can yell on them or let them know to improve their game, which it seems he does while talking to press. One thing we have to give credit to Dhoni is that being a captain he still performing very well which is rare for indian captain. We agree that india doesnt have talented bowlers and when ever our batting collapsed we hardly win a game. We should concentrate on constant performance of the players rather than blaming captain on every loss. A captain can win matches when he changes his bowlers effectively to defend a score while for india i believe we dont have a fine international bowler and all are 2nd rate bowler.

  • dummy4fb on January 1, 2013, 4:06 GMT

    Maybe its time to try Yusuf Pathan again. He just might regain form. His replacements have benn dismal failures mostly.

  • cric_aus on January 1, 2013, 1:01 GMT

    I agree that its time dhoni should be relieved of his duties as One day captain. He has too much responsibility. It has worked for other international teams in the past. Dhoni is not the problem. The problem is consistency from Gambhir. Its just same old story with him where he never fires. Its time to look at a new opening partnership. Sehwag time is up also. The first people who should be sacked is the selectors. Its long overdue.

  • RajiRG on January 1, 2013, 0:41 GMT

    I think this article forgets to mention the weakness of the Indian bowling attack. "Confident batsman, cautious captain " it says but why is he making those decisions. If you have a good look at the Indian bowling stocks for the last two years you may find that apart from Umesh Yadav who is an extraordinary talent there is not much we have seen. It is pretty harsh to blame Dhoni for choosing Virat Kholi for the particular over since he had to have Bhuvi and Ishant to finish off the innings. Anybody that has been following the cricket would say Ashok Dinda is anything but international ready. Yes, Dhoni may have lost his flamboyance to a certain extent but to me he is still India's go to man. Virat will get better as time goes by, however its Dhoni who is the current "Wall".