September 5, 2008

Mahi hews a new road

How Dhoni changed his game to become the world's top ODI batsman again

Not pretty, effective: Dhoni watches one from Mendis closely © Getty Images

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a rock star among cricketers. Everything about him is cool - his hair, his adverts, his bikes, his Bollywood friends, and his general demeanour on the field. His cricket has a raspy, rough edge to it; when he riffs with the bat, it is fascinating to watch.

Shortly after a sensational start to his career, the world's bowlers sorted Dhoni out. At one point he looked no more than an extremely powerful man who had two or three strokes. Seamers on helpful pitches and good spinners seemed to exercise a fair amount of control over him. No longer was lusty hitting possible.

But the thing about Dhoni is that he manages to find a way. He may fail once, but no matter what the predicament, he goes back, does his homework and somehow finds a way. After a superb series against Sri Lanka, during which he tackled Ajantha Mendis creditably, Dhoni has returned to the top of the ICC's rankings for one-day batsmen. It would not be an overstatement to say that since the end of the World Cup last year he has been the best ODI batsman in the world.

Long before Mendis, there was Muttiah Muralitharan. Long before the Asia Cup, there was the World Cup. Dhoni's dismissal in the World Cup match against Sri Lanka was the enduring image of India's debacle in the tournament. He went back to cut Murali, his bat coming down from the fifth floor, and the ball skidded through to hit his pad before the bat had come down to the level of the stumps. It was one of the most comprehensive lbws ever; Dhoni even walked for it. It seemed time - and there seemed evidence enough - to dismiss Dhoni as a bully on true tracks and against predictable bowling.

That was then, though. Now that huge, unwieldy back-lift has been cut out almost completely, courtesy an almost Rafael Nadal-like resolve to eliminate a mistake from one's game. So much has Dhoni changed that the image of that dismissal is now a comfortably distant memory.

Weeks after the World Cup, India found themselves in another mess, against Bangladesh in Mirpur. They had lost five wickets for 144, and needed another 107 in 19 overs. It was a match India simply couldn't afford to lose: they were supposed to extract revenge after the World Cup, not embarrass themselves again.

That game, perhaps, was when Dhoni traded exuberance for efficiency for good. He was running out of body fluids and partners fast, but he remained the last man standing. A dasher and a finisher he had been until then; now he took the first steps towards becoming an accumulator and a pressure-absorber, while still finishing matches. India didn't lose on the tour after that jailbreak. Rahul Dravid, Dhoni's captain in the match, observed: "He does not play in just one fashion. He has got the ability to change gears, to change the tempo of the game, play according to the situation, and that's a fantastic gift to have at such a young age." Dravid had seen what the world had yet to.

Aided by bad light, Dhoni went on to save the Lord's Test, another turning point for India in their rehabilitation after the World Cup. Towards the end of that trip to England, the captaincy of the one-day side fell to him, and soon he created for himself a circumstance that would demand he take his batting to another level altogether. Slowly he got rid of the older players, thereby placing more responsibility on himself than there already was. Grandly he invested in youth, though seldom was his faith repaid: while the youngsters brought a much-needed freshness to the fielding unit, only one of them, Gautam Gambhir, batted consistently.

This is a batsman who has completely rediscovered his game, in the public eye, in the face of the added pressure that his captaincy moves have surely brought

It was Dhoni who absorbed the pressure and took it upon himself to lead India's batting. Much of his success as a captain flows from his being a leader by example. When the team fails, he is the first one to take the blame, the first to go back to the drawing board.

When Mendis bamboozled the batsmen in the Asia Cup final, Dhoni was the only one to provide any sort of resistance, trying desperately to read the bowler from the hand, in the air, off the pitch, hanging in somehow, delaying the inevitable for as long as possible. The next time he faced Mendis, he was up against a different monster altogether, one who had begun the end of the most feared middle order in modern Test cricket.

It took Dhoni a match and the best part of another to successfully tackle Mendis. In the second game he soaked up the pressure that the fall of early wickets in a low chase brought. In the third he gave Mendis a bit of stick, punishing any error in length, scoring 29 off the 28 balls he faced from him. And in the fourth he accumulated like a true workman, running hard despite cramps, showing just why it is his team-mates respect him so. The way he pushed Suresh Raina while the two ran between wickets sent a strong message. Dhoni had promoted himself ahead of two men who were playing as batsmen alone, and was key to the wins that resulted in India's first series victory in Sri Lanka. He may not have the immense natural talent of Virender Sehwag, or the quick footwork of Gambhir, but he managed to do better than the rest of the Test line-up.

Since the World Cup he has scored more runs than any other batsman in the world, at an average of more than 50, but it's the manner in which his runs have come that tells a story. His strike-rate in his 69 matches up to and including the World Cup was 98.51; since then, he has scored at 84.51 per 100 balls. In 51 matches in this period he has doubled his centuries and half-centuries tally to four and 24 respectively. The 1987 runs he made before the World Cup featured 161 fours and 63 sixes, and 51.43% of his runs came in boundaries. After the World Cup he has hit 137 fours and 27 sixes in 1805 runs - a boundary percentage of 39.31.

In the last year and a half Dhoni has performed well in almost every situation the middle order has thrown up. He has accumulated on difficult pitches in Guwahati, Brisbane, and more recently in Colombo. He has soaked up the pressure of tricky run-chases in Mirpur, Adelaide and Dambulla. And every now and then, when the need has arisen, he has brought out the big hits, like in Chandigarh, against Australia, and variously in Karachi during the Asia Cup.

Not only has Dhoni raised his game, he has been an inspiration to the likes of Raina, who have fed off him © Getty Images

Less tangibly, but more importantly, he has inspired the batsmen around him: Raina has fed off him, Yuvraj Singh has enjoyed competing with him, and Gambhir has revelled in the faith shown by Dhoni, which has had its part to play in his transformation as a successful Test opener. Versatile and consistent, Dhoni is on his way to becoming a complete ODI batsman, both in setting up scores and chasing down totals.

The transformation could not have come easy, though. This is a batsman who has completely rediscovered his game, in the public eye, notwithstanding the added pressure that his captaincy moves have surely brought.

The abbreviated back-lift is believed to be the single most effective technical change he has made. It has been a simple change, but one that no doubt required a thorough knowledge of his game to bring about.

The way Dhoni tackled Mendis, especially, was exemplary. For starters, he didn't mind looking ungainly at times. He didn't commit and looked to play as late as possible, taking his front pad adjacent to the line of the ball, eliminating the lbw.

With his heavy, bottom-handed grip, when he nudged the balls round, it seemed he was actually putting the ball into the gaps more with his hands than with the bat. He has always had the bull-like strength to fall back upon, whether it is the occasional big hit or the running between the wickets.

When he came back into the side from the self-imposed break during the Test series, it was without any promise of a magical transformation, just renewed commitment. "Do you have any special plans for Mendis?" he was asked a day before he left for Sri Lanka. "You'll see once the time comes," he said. And so we did.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo