May 3, 2013

Dhoni and the art of controlling an IPL match

As the game proceeds at breakneck speed around him, his ingenious use of resources often catches the eye

The IPL is a bit like a Bollywood potboiler when Chennai Super Kings are playing. When the opponent and the scoreboard conspire against them, their star, MS Dhoni, marches in with an air of invincibility and bravado, and raises his team from the dead. He is called the best finisher in T20 for a reason: when he's in the middle, one hardly ever doubts the result will not go CSK's way. That's how much sway he holds in the format.

His influence is not just restricted to when he contributes with the bat, but also when he dons the captain's hat. His meticulous manoeuvres on field suggest a dogged approach, and an astute mind at work.

A T20 match unfolds at such a rapid pace that you need to look hard to notice the nuances. An IPL game unfolds even faster, or so it seems. The broadcasters cut to the cheerleaders after every four, six, or wicket, and focus on the WAGs and their reactions in between deliveries. So we rarely get to observe the little things that make an impact on the game. Captaincy is one such aspect that gets very little attention - unfortunately there isn't enough time to focus on the different field positions employed for various bowlers at different stages.

However, Dhoni's ingenious use of resources does catch the eye. Ironically a man who is usually reluctant to flirt with innovative field positions in ODIs and Tests is at its imaginative best in the IPL, especially when dealing with his India team-mates; he obviously knows a lot about their strengths and weaknesses, and leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exploiting them.

Knowing Virat Kohli doesn't play the sweep shot remarkably well, especially early in his innings, made Dhoni place both short fine leg and square leg inside the circle for R Ashwin, an offspinner. The fielding restrictions were off, and there was no need to have those two men in the ring and risk a boundary, but Dhoni sensed a wicket-taking opportunity and went with it. (Kohli didn't fall for it, though, which shows his maturity.)

Similarly, in the game against Delhi Daredevils, there was a concerted effort to bowl short and into Virender Sehwag's body, with a fielder manning the square-leg boundary. Dhoni knew that while Sehwag doesn't play the pull or hook shot that often, he could take the bait if pestered enough. And he did.

For Gautam Gambhir, Dhoni had a fifth slip throughout when the seamers were operating, primarily as a single-saving tactic, for Gambhir likes to play the dab shot through slips. He also had a fielder close, between point and cover, to restrict Gambhir's effective square drive. These may not be big tricks to bank on, but they make a huge difference in defining one's approach, and possibly the eventual outcome.

Dhoni plays with his field positions and bowling changes more in T20s than in the other formats, which betrays his affinity and comfort with this version of the game. Also, his biggest strength, the ability to stay calm under pressure, has the most effect in T20 cricket, for the other two formats run at a much slower pace. In fact, staying calm can be counter-productive at times in Test cricket, for you often need to set the pace of the game and not swim with the current.

Bowling a yorker outside the off stump used to be an effective way to restrict Dhoni, for his bat-swing didn't allow him to go over cover that often, but even that isn't a safe option anymore

The most common mistake a batsman makes while playing a T20 match is to submit to the pace of the game. The game may move at a heightened speed but one ought to remember that a bowler usually takes the same amount of time to run up and deliver as he does in any other format. Also, while big hitting may be the need of the hour, one needs to be aware that you can only hit the ball out of the park if you make the right contact, which means watching the ball till the last moment and not losing one's shape when hitting.

Dhoni ticks all these boxes, and more, while batting in the second half of a T20 innings. For starters, he has abandoned the pre-set batting order this season and usually walked in with about ten overs to spare (in T20 cricket, you don't go by the number of wickets that have fallen but the number of balls left). This has allowed him to bide his time a little. Then his acute game-sense leads him to rotate the strike for the early part, manoeuvre it to his advantage in the next few overs, and own it in the final stretch, displaying an immense self-belief in his skills to clear the fence at will.

From a technical vantage point, Dhoni's ability to not lose shape while playing the big shots sets him apart. He achieves this with legs that create a strong base, fast hands that generate phenomenal bat speed, a very unorthodox bat-swing that finishes with a twirl of the wrists (and not a full extension of his arms), and a tendency to hit with a relatively straight bat - he rarely goes too far across the stumps and doesn't target the square-leg boundary off the front foot.

In addition, he goes deep inside the crease to get under yorkers and create elevation. Bowling a yorker outside the off stump used to be an effective way to restrict Dhoni, for his bat-swing didn't allow him to go over cover that often, but even that isn't a safe option anymore: he has started waiting a little longer and flaying them over the point region.

While Dhoni's ability to not be flustered even when the asking rate is over 12 runs per over is fascinating, his tactical acumen to have fielders in positions that challenge batsmen to come out of their comfort zones, shows his desire to be in complete control of the game. He knows when to go after bowlers, just as he knows when to shift gears, qualities that make him a rare asset in the T20 format.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here