When Dhoni's worlds collide
The ball was full, but not quite a half-volley. The shot that followed was something of a topspin forehand hit on the half-volley, bouncing close to the baseline. The knees were not bent like a tennis player's but the bigger bat and massive twirl did the job, depositing the ball wide of long-on for one of the flatter sixes you're likely to see. MS Dhoni can still play those shots.
That he does not do as freely or as often as he used to is not lost on fans and colleagues alike. When Dhoni hits big shots in the nets, Virender Sehwag is usually quick to point out, in banter, "MS, yahan to bade-bade lag rahe hain, match mein kya ho jata hai? [Where do these big shots disappear in the matches?]"
It should also not be forgotten that Dhoni refrains from such audacious shots because he has explosive batsmen all around him, and his solid batting in the middle allows those flashers to play their flashier game. Nor should it be forgotten that Dhoni has managed to maintain a respectable strike-rate in one-day cricket while tempering his approach.
Since becoming captain, Dhoni has played 63 ODIs with a visibly more responsible approach. In that time he has hit 34 sixes compared to 71 in 84 prior ODIs, and 160 fours to an earlier 206. In fewer matches, though, he has scored more runs at a slightly lesser strike-rate and hugely improved average. In the last two years, Dhoni has become a complete and remarkably consistent one-day batsman. Still he can't keep everyone happy, as Dhoni readily reminded: "At some of the venues, people still expect me to hit those big sixes every time, so it is different."
Today was the best of both of Dhoni's worlds. When he came in at 97 for 3 in the 16th over India were threatening to have aimed too high, and thus losing too many wickets too early. The first ball he faced hit him on the back of his head. He had taken his eyes off the ball, and found it following him. "It went blank," said Dhoni. "That's what happens when you get hit on the head. "It was a good delivery. It's not like I was hit in the head for the first time. I am quite used to it. If you want to put together a package, you'll get at least 15 shots of my getting hit in the head. It's not the best way to start the innings."
He still had the presence of mind to steal a leg-bye. The first half of the innings was all about stealing and haring between the wickets; the robbing could wait. Ricky Ponting tried to make that stealing difficult, keeping mid-off and mid-on in for the best part of first 40 overs. The boundary riders stayed off the ropes, trying to cut the twos on a huge ground. At that point Dhoni didn't feel the need to clear mid-off or mid-on; he kept taking ones and twos despite a proactive approach from Ponting.
Suresh Raina, a younger man with a lesser workload and fresher legs, kept raising his bat and patting it in appreciation of every scrambled single, and every one turned into two. It is this sort of commitment, this attitude of doing it first before demanding it of others, that earns Dhoni his team-mates' respect.
Dhoni hit one boundary in the first 28 balls he faced and two more before he raised his half-century off 55 balls. That is the new Dhoni for you. "You play by instinct, but at the same time there is a cautious attempt to see what the demand actually is," he said. "If there is a youngster playing at No. 4, and he tries to play a big shot and gets out, its okay, people say he will learn and he will improve. But when it comes to a senior who has played around 100-odd international games, people rip him apart.
"At times that's in the back of your mind. Earlier when you went for a big shot, you backed yourself and went for it. It's not the same as I was three or four years ago, less responsibility and more flair. But now I have more responsibility every time I turn up on the field. A lot depends on what kind of pressure you are handling."
Still some yearn for the old Dhoni, especially when the situation asks for it, during a difficult chase or while setting targets. He has managed that, like he did in the West Indies earlier this year, having promoted himself to No. 3 and scoring a 34-ball 46. Amid his nudging and nurdling, which is not the most pleasant sight on a cricket field, such innings get forgotten. Even Kris Srikkanth, the chairman of selectors, couldn't hide his glee when announcing that the old Dhoni was back.
And back the old Dhoni was. Walking down and hitting Shane Watson, heaving and slapping Mitchell Johnson, hitting three bottom-handed sixes in two overs, he scored 54 runs in his last 27 balls, putting it past Australia, barring a freak innings or poor bowling. Even as the crowd went wild, it couldn't be escaped that this man had earned the right to go berserk after having built an innings, having worked hard through the most part of his piece.
India need both the Dhonis, but there are other batsmen who can compensate for the old Dhoni, and more often than not it's the new Dhoni that nobody else evokes. Dhoni, more than anybody else, knows that.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo