October 9, 2012

Dhoni: from instinctive to inflexible

India's captain has increasingly become rigid in his tactics when the team needs him to be unconventional

The metamorphosis of MS Dhoni from a long-haired pinch-hitter to a suave captain couldn't have been more fascinating, particularly for those who have seen him from close quarters. In 2004 he arrived on the scene as a small-town boy, with his bold helicopter shot and a natural affinity for hitting the ball. He soon turned into the perfect antidote for a team struggling with an over-reliance on senior players. He came armed with new ideas about endgame tactics, had the ability and conviction to take risks, backed players fully, and it all worked out well for him.

I remember first meeting Dhoni - reticent and self-conscious back then - on an India A tour to Kenya and Zimbabwe. We shared a room for over a month, which gave me an opportunity to understand why he was an extraordinary player.

Dhoni was the second-choice keeper on the tour after Dinesh Karthik. While Dhoni spent a lot of time honing his skills behind the stumps, as was expected, he was also the first in the nets to try his hand at fast bowling. I told him his bowling stints were futile, but he was having none of it. In fact, he happily bowled to Karthik, his competitor, who was vying for a place in the Indian team by spending extra hours in the nets to work out problems in his batting. Many of us thought Dhoni was being foolish. but we failed to read between the lines. In his late teens, he had already realised that life in sport was going to be a daring adventure - you punt, win or lose, or play it safe and lose more often than not.

Here was a small-town boy who was the opposite of how you expected him to be: raring to go, secure in his cricket, unruffled by the world's view of him, not caring what others, including his competitors, were doing. That made him extraordinary.

Karthik got a call-up from India, so Dhoni got his chance with the A side, and that's when I first glimpsed the brilliance in his batting and the astuteness in his cricket thinking. India played a triangular involving Pakistan A on that tour, and I saw Dhoni paddle Iftikhar Anjum, a reasonably quick bowler, for a boundary, and then, to my utter disbelief, reverse-sweep him for another because the third man had been brought inside the circle. This was a shot most people hadn't seen before, and it told me that Dhoni was here to stay.

He wasn't afraid to try new things and was a gambler by nature. When he saw third man was inside the circle, his gaming instincts made him try something unconventional. It wasn't a percentage shot, but if gamblers start worrying about the odds, they would never gamble.

Dhoni went on to play this way even after he donned the India colours. He trusted his instincts and wasn't afraid of risk. As captain, in the World Twenty20 final in 2007, he opened the batting with the less-fancied Yusuf Pathan and threw the ball to Joginder Sharma for the last over. Some will argue that Virender Sehwag's unavailability and Harbhajan Singh's ordinary form made Dhoni's decisions look straightforward, but I thought they were brave moves in the face of adversity. It takes immense courage to not bowl the more experienced bowler when a World Cup is at stake, even if that bowler has gone for a few in his previous over.

Dhoni's move to promote Cheteshwar Pujara to bat at No. 3 against Australia in the Bangalore Test in 2010 revealed an incisive mind. It was an instinctive decision, and he took it. It's not every day that a captain asks Rahul Dravid to move down the order.

Dhoni went on to lead India to the No. 1 ranking in Tests and a World Cup victory after 28 years. My heart was in my mouth when I saw him walk out of the pavilion ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh in the final in Mumbai last year. Again a gamble. And the world would have crucified him had the move gone wrong. But Dhoni, never shy of taking on his responsibilities, stepped out with an unwavering spirit.

His tactical brilliance came to the fore a lot more in the IPL and the Champions League, because the T20 format rarely follows a set pattern, and it demands a lot more from the captain. Since every over in a T20 game is 5% of the total innings, a single mistake in judgement can cost you a match. Dhoni opened the bowling with R Ashwin, made Suresh Raina a better bowler and manoeuvred his batting resources to get the best out of everyone. It's true he had a talented side at his disposal, but so did Mumbai Indians, Delhi Daredevils and Kolkata Knight Riders. Yet, none of the others delivered similar results over five seasons.

It is sad to see Dhoni succumb to a safety-first approach - one that promotes complacency, where guarding an advantage becomes more important than acquiring one

Unfortunately all that, though glorious, is in the past. Of late, the flexibility that was Dhoni's forte seems to have deserted him. I'm not a huge fan of a captain being too flexible, since it can betray a lack of conviction, but rigidity isn't good either, for that stems from arrogance.

In the 2011 World Cup, Dhoni persisted with Piyush Chawla for as long as it was possible, though Yuvraj, a part-time spinner, looked a lot better than Chawla. Dhoni was also too stubborn to use Ashwin till he was forced to. It wasn't a coincidence that the team that played the final Test in Adelaide in 2011-12 was nearly identical (except for missing Dhoni to a one-match suspension) to the one that played the first Test of the tour, in Melbourne, even though India had already lost the series 0-3.

The obstinacy continued during the one-dayers that followed. Even if Dhoni adopted the much-publicised rotation policy at the top, he refused to allow Manoj Tiwary a hit in the middle, though Raina and Rohit Sharma were failing consistently. Later, in spite of the failures in Australia, Dhoni chose to travel with the same personnel to the Asia Cup. In the inconsequential one-off T20 in South Africa, where the hosts rested their senior pros, India fielded their best XI. Rohit's presence in all five ODIs in Sri Lanka, despite having failed for the longest time, was also inexplicable.

All this raises the question: is Dhoni being rigid in his thought process or is he just afraid of losing?

Agreeing to call off the Test match in Dominica when India needed a little over a run a ball with seven wickets in hand was an example of Dhoni's changing mindset. In an IPL game against Pune Warriors, Dhoni didn't bowl Ravindra Jadeja because the left-handed Jesse Ryder was on strike. Trying Jadeja may have been a gamble but playing it safe only delayed the inevitable. Jadeja didn't bowl in the final against KKR either.

More recently, in the match against South Africa in the just concluded World Twenty20, it was baffling to see Ashwin bowl after Rohit. Also, Dhoni's top three bowlers (Zaheer Khan, Ashwin and L Balaji) were left with an over each in hand even after South Africa crossed 121. Was defending 121 the objective or winning the match, even if it meant India went out of the tournament? Looking on from the outside, it felt like the latter. Perhaps Dhoni's inclination to always have a back-up plan if things go awry explains his reluctance to promote himself in the batting order in T20s.

It is sad to see Dhoni succumb to a safety-first approach - one that promotes complacency, where guarding an advantage becomes more important than acquiring one. In life, as one achieves success, the ability to take risks falls in almost the same proportion. When Dhoni first became captain there was very little at stake, so he could punt without worrying too much, but as the stakes got higher, every defeat was ruthlessly dissected and criticised, which may have led him to believe defeat was not an option.

Since the Indian team is going through a transition, it will need Dhoni's gambling instincts as a leader more than ever, for now he may have to make the team punch above its weight often. I'm eagerly waiting for him to stop playing the percentages and start following his instincts instead. Instead of being vocal about wanting rank turners at home, it would be better if he starts addressing the big issue, which is to build a team that will also succeed overseas.

Dhoni's cricket has always been more about the attitude than skill, and sometimes that's what is needed to succeed at the highest level.

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