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

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?

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