July 7, 2017

Why has Dhoni lost his one-day mojo?

His dot-ball percentage in the middle overs has gone up, and he is taking fewer singles than he used to

Can Dhoni find a way to pace his innings differently? © AFP

MS Dhoni has just gone past Adam Gilchrist and is only behind Kumar Sangakkara on the list of wicketkeepers who have scored the most runs in one-day internationals. While the other two were top-order batsmen, Dhoni has achieved this feat batting in the lower half of the batting order.

Batting in one-day cricket is lopsided in favour of the top three batsmen, and so, most batting records belong to them. This is not to take any credit away from the two left-handers who were so good at their craft that their teams sent them in at the top of the order, but it will count as a failure to read the numbers right if we fail to place Dhoni's stats in context. The number at which Dhoni batted most of his career is considered to be the toughest position to bat at in 50-overs cricket. Nine out of ten times he would get only a handful of overs to bat, and he had to hit the ground running when he came in.

The top order is allowed to gradually build pace but lower-order batsmen aren't permitted that luxury. They are asked to jump on a treadmill that is already running (speed set by the previous occupant) and the brief is to either keep the pace or step it up, moments after getting on. The only time lower-order batsmen are allowed to set the pace is when there has been a top-order collapse, and therefore getting out is not an option.

Dhoni has been doing this for a decade. He is undoubtedly the best finisher the world has ever seen. I put him ahead of Michael Bevan, because while both Dhoni and Bevan could break down a chase with precision, Bevan could only do it with singles, twos and fours, while Dhoni had a sixth gear that allowed him to deposit the ball far and beyond.

The things that separated Dhoni from some of the biggest hitters in the world were his judgement of ones and twos, and his possession of the lower-body strength needed to take runs with ease. And he did all this without playing the square cut and booming cover drives, or sweeping spinners

Dhoni's biggest strength was his ability to read the game and his belief in his own abilities. While he could hit sixes at will, he never allowed ego to come in the way of building an innings and of doing what he thought was right for the team. It is hard to recall a Dhoni dismissal where he played to the gallery and was out.

The things that separated him from some of the biggest hitters in the world were his judgement of ones and twos, and his possession of the lower-body strength needed to take runs with ease. And he did all this without playing the square cut and booming cover drives, or sweeping spinners. Not that he couldn't cut, cover-drive and sweep, but the nature of his game didn't allow him to use those strokes frequently.

His preferred method was to plant his front foot a long way down and work the ball into gaps. Once in a while, he went deep inside the crease but to either muscle it through extra cover or midwicket. You would rarely see him collect boundaries behind point or behind square against spinners. Dhoni's ability to hit sixes without even using his feet prevented captains from positioning fielders closer to the bat, and Dhoni used that threat to rotate strike. Of course, once in a while he would also go aerial.

The other, more impressive, aspect of Dhoni's modus operandi while chasing was to take the game as deep as possible. It's one thing to say that the best way to chase is to stay in the game for as long as possible, but it takes a lot to do it successfully. When you see the asking rate climb, you tend to panic a little; it takes only a couple of dot balls to force a batsman to manufacture a shot or attempt a non-existent run. The only way to stay sane in the last few overs of a critical chase is to have unwavering faith in your own abilities and in the knowledge accumulated through experience of pulling it off time and again.

Dot-balls and singles percentage in overs 11-40 in ODIs since 2015
Batsman Inns Singles % Dot %
Steven Smith 40 41.3 45.6
Virat Kohli 37 42.7 42.0
MS Dhoni 28 34.1 54.8

Lately things have changed a little. Dhoni's dot-ball percentage has gone up by about 4% since 2015, and the percentage of singles taken in the middle overs has declined by 5% too. And while there's no change in his strike rate in the last ten overs, he is getting out more often in that period than he did a few years ago.

It's understandable that you can't do at 35 the things you did at 25. Reflexes tend to slow down, and you lose the gift of timing to hit the long ball right from the beginning of an innings. Dhoni has acknowledged these changes, and for two years he has made his intention to bat higher up the order quite clear. He needs more time to build now and accelerates later than he used to.

The combination of the presence of an extra fielder inside the circle and Dhoni's need to now bide his time has encouraged captains to post fielders closer to the bat. Also, since Dhoni doesn't cut, cover-drive or sweep, captains have started posting those fielders inside the circle, which in turn has increased the dot-ball percentage in the middle overs. Dhoni did try the sweep against England but was out leg-before, and since then he has shelved it in the early part of his innings.

Top ten run-getters in overs 31-50 in ODIs since 2015
Batsman Inns Runs Scoring rate Dis Ave
Jos Buttler 23 762 8.06 13 58.61
AB de Villiers 24 699 7.98 17 41.11
Ben Stokes 21 686 6.82 17 40.35
Sikandar Raza 22 616 6.10 16 38.50
Eoin Morgan 23 609 7.26 17 35.82
Matthew Wade 28 598 7.00 21 28.47
Steven Smith 19 579 6.78 16 36.18
Virat Kohli 15 574 6.70 9 63.77
MS Dhoni 20 564 5.85 16 35.25
Shoaib Malik 21 487 6.91 11 51.00

Except England, all teams follow a particular pattern in ODIs - go slow at the beginning, keep wickets in hand, and then explode. Openers start cautiously and the top order scores at 5-5.5 runs an over till about 30 overs. From there, there's a tendency to treat an ODI as a T20, if there are seven or eight wickets in hand. If you fail to score 70 between overs 31 and 40 in such circumstances, you end up a little short, regardless of how much you made the last ten overs count.

Unless Dhoni gets to the middle by the 25th over, starting slowly is no longer a viable option for him. While chasing, he still plays the way he used to a few years ago, working slowly towards a crescendo, and he would pull off that finale almost every time in the past. It isn't happening often enough now, though.

Perhaps it's time to rethink the method and pace innings a little differently. Leaving it till the final over was an audacious strategy that only Dhoni could pull off, but since that's not succeeding very often, he might want to change gears and step on the accelerator a little earlier.

There are four parameters to judge the greatness of a player: 1. longevity of a career, 2. statistics, 3. impact on results, 4. adaptability. Dhoni has the first three, and he has somewhat ticked the fourth box too, with the way he has adapted to overseas conditions in the longer format. But this is yet another test of his ability to adapt to change, and if he is able to adopt a different path, he might finish nearly as strongly as he started.

Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ramesh3456050 on July 17, 2017, 7:49 GMT

    Dhoni is a lion but we need to build /find some body, need like Dhoni and Bevan never die attitude to finish the game. In recent time India rarely losing match in batting failure but most on bowling failure. If new ball bowler unable to take wicket and our great spinner are struggling to it so.

  • Ramana on July 16, 2017, 13:40 GMT

    As usual, very well analysed, technically sound piece. MSD does tend to rouse a lot of emotions though ! But what exactly do you expect shud happen Akash ? As things stand, MSD is an outstanding WK. Hes not a bad bat ...will he actually further modify his batting ? I doubt he can do that.. If there was a chance to prove that he still had his 'mojo', that was in CT17 finals...but he blew it..

  •   Cricinfouser on July 14, 2017, 15:28 GMT

    Talking about MSD batting up the order ,where does he fit in?? There are guys like Manish Pandey,Shreyas Iyer,Jadhav,Dinesh Karthik,Rahane,etc who are pushing for 4th and 5th position and then there is Pant. Dhoni is still good enough, but till 2019 is a question mark! He has to bat with more freedom and score runs, if not he will be facing serious criticism next year,but there is more than that. Dhoni,even if he has to bat free,others have to take responsibility, Guys like Pandya and Jadhav have to win matches,and they are nowhere I feel. For the time-being India have to go with Dhoni but its a head-ache for Kohli going into WC. With the openers starting so slowly,we need a stronger middle-order and lower-order who can cover-up in the end. The team that is all covered-up is England and kudos for them to setup a team like this very quickly.

  • m.opin1594230 on July 13, 2017, 15:43 GMT

    He should have continue playing tests. He can come back to tests and leave short format games.

  • Palash on July 13, 2017, 9:42 GMT

    I hold Akash's articles in high regard. Agree with everything here except that Dhoni is no Gilly, and definitely not Sanga. He has been the best batting WK India had. His shortfall is not being able to translate his limited overs batting success to Tests and his inability to play swing seam on overseas wickets. Gilly was equally dashing at no 6/7 in tests across the globe and Sanga will waltz into any batting line up on virtue of his class. Current days' Dhoni is the typical Indian WK from pre-Dhoni era. Reliable behind stumps. not much in front of it.

  • Ference on July 11, 2017, 23:04 GMT

    Guys get your stats right before commenting, agreed that MSD has declined and all has this right to say, but the problem is, he set that level for himself, see below (Please Post)

    Till date 23 Wicketkeepers played for India - (22 Keepers Total Runs are 7,238 (Average - 11.59) and MSD is 9,496 (Average is 51.33))

    Second best Total is from Dravid 2,300 @ Average of 44.23 (Pure Batsmen) and third best is Nayan Mongia 1,272 @ Average of 20.19.

    Yes it is all MSD fault that set that level and it would be very difficult for the upcoming keepers to maintain that, so please relish the egm of India and he will definitely sooner than we think. PERIOD

  • Alex on July 11, 2017, 17:53 GMT

    You can never blame shastri coaching as NOT TRYING. Every permutation and combination revisited. I can say there will be a mega party in indian team because indian team player can do anything they want and they have a backer. He will not abandon dhoni or kohli even their form dips. SHastri will even hire sehwag/srikkanth as batting consultant and along with dravid. Shastri will let others do the job. He sit there in couch and commentate about how and what every one should do. He does have common sense and great adaptability. He is not a bad pick at all. The reason he fail because of BAD RECRUITMENT of Players. Same disease england is inflicted with. Find why i say that.

  • Krishen on July 11, 2017, 12:45 GMT

    @CRICINFOUSER- Facebook You are right MSD is not a good T20 or ODI finisher because he is the Greatest Finisher & Greatest captain in all forms of world cricket in history of the game. But this will require deeper analysis. No Finisher has a 100% record & no captain has 100% record. So on occasions efforts will not succeed and opposition may also excel. But Cricket is a team sport and other members are also expected to contribute in success.

    Cricket is situational sport and match contributions can't be measured by Average & Strike Rate. Deeper analysis will reveal that MSD has contributed in last 2 years as well and should continue in IND team.

  •   Cricinfouser on July 10, 2017, 22:58 GMT

    Dhoni is not a good T20I and ODI finisher? 1. On September 7, 2014, India were playing T20I against England. After Raina got out Dhoni and Jadeja were batting. They needed to score 36 in 19 balls. There were 6 wickets still intact. Instead of going after quick runs, Dhoni waited, waited, and waited for big hits until it was too late, with the result India lost by 3 runs. 2. Similar thing happened on Oct.18, 2015, in an ODI against SA. There were 8 wickets left, Dhoni didn't show any desire to score runs; he was just scoring 1 or 2 runs over after over, even in death overs. India lost the match by 18 runs. 3. Again on June 18, 2016, in a T20I against Zimbabwe, Dhoni didn't show any intention to score runs. He waited for his big hits until the last over. India lost by 2 runs. 4. On August 27, 2016 in a T20I with West Indies, only 8 runs were needed in the last over. Dhoni didn't show the desire needed to win the match. India lost by 1 run. 5. Recently, his ODI &T20I was bad.

  • jamesn4081647 on July 10, 2017, 14:56 GMT

    1. Dhoni has a massive ego, and it has lost India games in the past.

    2. Dhoni has actually had almost as many innings in the top 5 as 6 or below, and indeed, has scored more than half of his runs whilst batting in the top 5.

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