Flexibility key, but Dhoni needs batting cushion too
"I did not get an invite."
That's how Eoin Morgan responded when asked by an Indian journalist if England had spoiled MS Dhoni's birthday party on Friday evening. A victory would have been a nice way to usher in Dhoni's 37th birthday. Perhaps Dhoni would acknowledge his role in India coming out second and him failing to put the icing on the cake.
There was no doubt that Dhoni was India's best batsman on a faintly grassy Cardiff pitch that allowed England's fast bowlers to extract pace and hard bounce. India's top order, comprising three openers, had all walked back due to self-inflicted errors. Three wickets in succession inside the Powerplay forced even the turbo-charged Virat Kohli to temper himself.
Two days before the Cardiff T20I, Kohli had long and focused training sessions. On Thursday, Kohli even had a separate session against the short ball in the open net, after noticing the hard and pacy nature of the surface. But he failed to impose himself the way he normally does in the middle, with barely a stroke making the right noise. England's fast bowlers, along with Adil Rashid, maintained cut-throat discipline throughout. This pushed Kohli, Suresh Raina and then later Dhoni into a spot from where they could not break free.
A run-rate of below six halfway into the innings reflected India's state of mind. A combination of failing to read Rashid's wrong 'un from the hand and desperation resulted in Raina's stumping. Perhaps he walked in ahead of Dhoni because he is a left-hander. England's plan was to keep pitching short into his ribs. Raina kept playing from inside the line, and, while he came out unscathed, he didn't do any damage. When Dhoni walked in, India were 79 for 4, with eight overs remaining.
Michael Atherton, on air, asked Kumar Sangakkara what an ideal target would be. Atherton offered170-180, but the former Sri Lankan captain thought 160 was realistic. India ended up making 148 with 22 coming off the final over. The Kohli-Dhoni partnership was worth 32 off 29 balls; Dhoni made 13 off 16 balls while his captain had 18 off 13 balls. Dhoni had nine dot balls to Kohli's four. At one point, Dhoni was 19 off 20 balls. Once Kohli left, Dhoni hit 19 runs off eight remaining deliveries.
Kohli felt India lacked the one explosive partnership like the one Alex Hales and Jonny Bairstow had to take England home. Yet in the phase where he combined with Dhoni, neither played the aggressor role. It appeared both were hedging their bets and saving the blast for the last. Of course, it would be wrong to not credit England's bowling.
Liam Plunkett, David Willey and debutant Jake Ball (in his first three overs) kept them quiet by constantly hitting the hard length - back-of-length and climbing into or over the batsman's head. Kohli tried in vain a few times to connect, but the balls kept flying quickly past or over him.
That India only had one more specialist batsman in Hardik Pandya to follow may have played a part in the quiet phase too. That is the risk India take by playing a four-man bowling attack who are lethal with the ball but weak with the bat in hand.
After leading Chennai Super Kings to their third IPL crown in May, Dhoni, who had his best season as a batsman, said that he did not want to be caught in a "quicksand" batting down the order. He said if there were enough overs in hand - like in Cardiff - he would want to walk up the order and leave the mopping up for the other batsmen.
That he could afford to bat in the middle order for Chennai was possible because there were at least four other batsmen in the lower order who could smack the ball: Dwayne Bravo, Ravindra Jadeja, Deepak Chahar, Shardul Thakur and Willey. With such good cushion, Dhoni played comfortably and with freedom at No. 4 or 5.
With Kohli clear that he wants Rahul to follow the openers as far as possible and keep the batting line-up flexible, India ought to bat Dhoni at No. 5. They could have a Raina or perhaps even Dinesh Karthik along with Pandya below him. This way Dhoni has the cushion to play the way he wants to at this stage of his career.
On Friday, Dhoni struggled in Rashid's final over, playing him off the pitch. He then charged Rashid and smacked one over midwicket. There is barely anybody in limited-overs cricket who can read the game and the field like Dhoni does with bat in hand or behind the stumps. There is no doubt India's planning to keep the batting order flexible is a forward-thinking move. It is time they are flexible with the mindset, too.
Nagraj Gollapudi is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo