March 16, 2011

Is there madness in Dhoni's method?

The Indian captain's instincts and reasoning have worked in the past - even giving Nehra the final over - but there are times he needs to take a leaf from his batting and play it safe

There is an advert seen on Indian television these days that has celebrities of varying significance egging on the Indian team in the World Cup. The Hindi tagline at the end says, "Team aise nahin jeet ti, jitaana padtaa hai." Translated that means, "The team doesn't win just like that, you've got to make it win." It is meant for India's fans - as if they needed to be told to put the weight of their will behind MS Dhoni's squad. Should Dhoni turn his attention away from his favourite off-field pastime of video-gaming and watch the advert, it might sound like an instruction directed at him as well.

Dhoni has spent a relatively unharried four years in charge of India, or at least he has been careful to ensure it looks that way. More than his brand-building, cringe-making Captain Cool persona, Dhoni's tenure as skipper has been secure, rival-proof, and therefore wrinkle-free. Now, suddenly, over the course of a few weeks of the World Cup, creases are beginning to show both in the Indian team and its captain. India's World Cup is still alive, but already gloomy calculations are being made as to how their place in the quarter-finals is actually not secure. For the first time since his oxygen-depleting ascent, neither is Dhoni's as captain. On Sunday against West Indies in Chennai, he will be watched closer than he has been in a long time.

As startling as Dhoni's message may have been to his batsmen who played "for the crowd" on Saturday, it has not surprised them. Nor has it sent them, the India faithful will be relieved to hear, into despair or doubt. It is what Dhoni's modus operandi has always been: to speak directly, briefly and non-confrontationally to players; let them know what he believes needs to be done. In media briefings he does most of the same, but can frequently be snippy. Always, though, he will laboriously explain why he changed the batting or bowling order, chose to bat or chase, and then offer philosophical observations about hybrid fuel and life jackets.

At the World Cup, Dhoni's captaincy has been under the cosh for a set of reasons: in larger terms, it has to do with selection, like in the Piyush Chawla case. In smaller measure, decisions in Nagpur about changes in the batting order, and giving Ashish Nehra the final over. Until now Dhoni's has been captaincy by instinct over method, his own school of reasoning, and like with most captains once they gain greater control of their team, a healthy dose of obstinacy. In the last four years of his captaincy in the short game, if Dhoni had to be asked what was India's best ODI performance under his leadership, he would be choosing between the early CB Series win of 2008, an Asia Cup victory, or bilateral series wins in New Zealand and West Indies. Not such a tough choice, is it?

Now Dhoni's decisions, made using both reason and instinct, are backfiring often because their basic premises may be incorrect. Why should the cotton-woolling of Chawla not be interpreted as cricket's version of babysitting? Dhoni said Chawla had been picked to play in Delhi against Netherlands, because "basically you have to see which was the player that needed this game most, rather than the team needing the player". Or how about No. 4 being Virat Kohli's sacrosanct spot, before or after which he should ideally not be sent? Kohli is 22. Should he not be running loose wherever and whenever he is sent? Yuvraj Singh has spent all but 41 matches of his ODI career flitting between Nos. 4, 5 and 6, Rahul Dravid has kept wicket in ODIs, Sourav Ganguly broke one of the most successful ODI partnerships for India to go down to No. 3, Virender Sehwag went from being a middle-order batsman to an opener who has redefined the Test-match art itself.

Like all captains, Dhoni also has his players of choice who are given more licence, and his team recognises instinctively who those players are. Unfortunately for Dhoni his captaincy has not coincided with the discovery of new match-winners, like those found under Sourav Ganguly, for example

To move Yusuf Pathan up the order in a match against one of the best attacks in the World Cup on a wicket that was stopping was again based on a formula that the openers had given the platform and the pace of the innings needed to be amped up. The decision that had to be taken was which among the "explosive power" hitters Dhoni had spoken about would be able to do the job required: Yuvraj, Kohli, Dhoni or Pathan. Against Ireland, Pathan (30 off 24 balls, two fours three sixes) was pitch perfect. Against Dale Steyn in the Powerplay, he should have been the last option. Like all captains Dhoni also has his players of choice who are given more licence, and his team recognises instinctively who those players are. Unfortunately for Dhoni his captaincy has not coincided with the discovery of new match-winners, like those found under Sourav Ganguly, for example.

When a captain's instinct starts to head off in a direction where things do not go the way he wants, they sometimes overwhelm and undermine reason. A random example being not letting Harbhajan Singh immediately at JP Duminy, who has been dismissed by him three times in Tests in single digits. Four overs from the pacemen passed, Duminy put up 19 off 14 before Harbhajan came on. Immediately Duminy's runs dried up and he was out off Harbhajan's sixth ball to him.

The decision between Nehra and Harbhajan Singh became a 50-50 toss-up, with the spinner offering to bowl the 49th so that the team's most nerveless bowler, Zaheer Khan, could send down the 50th. If the 49th goes well - like it did for the Indians against South Africa in Nagpur, where Zaheer conceded four - the man bowling the 50th at least has a buffer. So far it had gone to Dhoni's plan. Nehra was the moment Dhoni gambled, because he has been India's best ODI bowler over the last year, the go-to man at the death. In Rajkot last year Nehra bowled the 50th against a rampaging Angelo Mathews with 11 needed off the last over to go past India's 414. He conceded five off the first three balls and took Mathews' wicket with the fourth.

Nehra has bowled the final over for India four times in his career, the two now forgotten instances being Karachi, the first ODI of the electric 2004 India-Pakistan series and against West Indies in a 2005 tri-series in Colombo, which took India to the final. Nagpur was the first time India lost. Before the World Cup he had taken 73 wickets (62 in ODIs and 13 in Twenty20s) since his comeback into the Indian team in June 2009. Why should Dhoni not have gone to him? Other than the fact that he may not have been warmed up not having bowled for 12 overs. It was a logical gamble that didn't work. Pathan and Chawla are the illogical gambles - they were perhaps doomed to tank.

As much as Dhoni wants his batsmen to "curb their instincts", it is the best time for his leadership to internalise the same message. Since his debut for India in 2004, he has changed his batting to eliminate risk (as if we haven't noticed that the cola-patented "helicopter shot" is not to be seen these days), yet he will not bat higher up the order as Ganguly repeatedly beseeches him to do in both commentary and column. He has a better average and 100-plus strike rate batting at either No. 3 or 4, but has done so in only 32 of 162 innings. His keeping has vastly improved from the 2007 version, and he still remains one of India's better runners between wickets. The match versus West Indies may have to mark the moment that his leadership evolves in a different direction. Or it could take a route he would rather not contemplate.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on March 19, 2011, 1:11 GMT

    hi is very cool person

  • Dummy4 on March 18, 2011, 14:36 GMT

    To be a great team one has to use Australia as the standard while making comparisons. Australia never plays a game that does not have the best playing 11 for a game - they do not experiment. This creates competition and every player is always trying to be on top of their game. They also choose players based on form and not past performance. Even Bret Lee is put on the bench if he is not in form. Dhonis method of instinct and gambling is never going to let him win a world cup - moreover he is not really contributing with runs either.

  • Dummy4 on March 18, 2011, 2:23 GMT

    Dhobi (Dhoni) needs to be shunted out....In the mnatch against South Africa, he took singles and let nehra and munaf face in the deatth overs and they got out..Dhoni remained unbeaten 11 runs from 20 balls...what a captain...TELL ME LAST TIME WHEN HE HAS PLAYED WELL FOR INDIA..SCORED OVER 100 PERCENT STRIKE RATE

  • Dummy4 on March 17, 2011, 22:49 GMT

    I just cant figure out y people have taken so long to understand dhoni s decision making flaws. To start with the 20-20 final final over was given to joginder sharma when harbhajan had an over left, and i can count n such cases where his judgement cant be justified by any means. Even the horse of luck get tired if u test it to the limit. Hope india wins

  • Sriram on March 17, 2011, 22:15 GMT

    The decision that cost us most was the one to take the power play when it was taken. We were scoring at 6.75 runs an over and there was no need for any acceleration at that time considering that Gambhir had just managed to score 10 runs in the over prior to the power play. We could have waited till the 45th over to take the power play. Well settled batsmen who were scoring runs at a very good pace were forced to change their strategy for no reason. The same thing happened against England too and we fell short of what we should have scored. And when we needed to take the power play against Netherlands to increase our NRR, Dhoni waited till 2 runs were required.

  • kumar on March 17, 2011, 19:31 GMT

    Good say @Thilak Raam, its not easy taking CAPTAINCY FOR INDIA , with so much pressure from huge # of fans, especially when players are not in form (including Dhoni).Being a captain he shud take responsibility if his team loses but that doesn't say he takes all blame. Dhoni cannot go into bowlers' mind while bowling. Unfortunately Nehra's bowling didn't work fine at right time. @DaisonGarvasis, FYI luck plays only for couple of games not for years of success.

  • Ashok on March 17, 2011, 19:17 GMT

    Some of Dhoni's tactics defy logic. Luckily India has the top 3 batsmen in Tendulkar, Sehwag and Gambhir to save his neck for some of his bizzare moves. These 3 are need to perform again for India to prevail over WI on Sunday. Dhoni's team selection is simple - restricted to just 2 bowlers. Zaheer & Harbhajan + Yuvraj, are automatic bowling choices. One paceman who is half decent is Patel and the choice of spin is between Ashwin & Chawla. Ashwin is more steady & experienced compared to Chawla. If the pitch is spinners one, Chawla comes in otherwise Ashwin wins.The batting order is also settled but again Dhoni's interference is amazing. Kohli is needed at #4 to provide stability. This leaves only 5,6,7 spots discretionary for Yuvraj, Dhoni & Pathan.Nehra's choice in the XI was poor let alone him bowling 50th over.Ashwin was needed for economy. Dhoni seems to lack the understanding of his players strengths & weaknesses.This is the main reason for his strange & illogical tactics.

  • Alex on March 17, 2011, 18:00 GMT

    Why people don't get this basic concept. It is not easy to HIT out in worldcup match compare to ODI. Normal ODI bowlers left alone to do the work. In world cup match whole team work towards same goal. So it won't be easy to hit out for sloggers like pathan unless he is playing against minnow team.

    I see india lacks urgency in the whole world cup matches...may be sleep walking or may be opposition is not afraid of indian team...

    The lack of fielding enthusiam will make fielders drop important catches and that will doom India.

    I can see even England can win the world cup. My bet is it will be srilanka vs South africa and srilanka win it.

  • Mojin on March 17, 2011, 16:16 GMT

    BRING BACK SREESANTH....Firstly Sreesanth is a lucky mascot...and secondly the statistics of Sreesanth would have looked better if he was given the allotted 10 overs per innings like all the rest of the specialist bowlers get in his team and around the teams in the world. Please look at this statistics...... the last 7 ODI's he played - he should have bowled 70 overs like the rest of the specialist bowlers... but he was given only 50....20 overs less than what he was supposed to bowl (that's really unfair and I really hope someone will agree with me here) If every captain's decide not to give another spell after an expensive spell from a bowler, none of the great bowlers would have come this far. If India have a different attitude to bowlers compared to batsmen then we will never produce great bowlers (fast bowlers especially).

  • shafeek on March 17, 2011, 15:52 GMT

    I think dhoni lose his confidence in batting,,,thats why he is not promoted upto the order. when India has standing players like sachin,yuvraj,dhoni.India must chose between kohli and gambhir and should give chance to raina,since he is consistent in any position and patan must be in team since he is a match winner..and despite playing with munaf and nehra should give chance to sreesanth and aswin.sreesanth is best suitable to ball with zaheer since he is a wicket taker.and aswin has been tidy in giving runs and he is also a wicket taker and can be use in power plays.good luck India

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