January 18, 2013

Dhoni: made for ODIs

It is as a one-day batsman and captain that he finds his best expression

It was 119 for 4 when Mahendra Singh Dhoni walked out to bat in Kochi. Ordinarily, Indian supporters might have been tense, given the scoreline; the fingernails might have been chewed, and India's recent one-day record might have been in danger of being pummelled further. But the man on his way out seemed to bring a sense of calm with him. He was in good form, of course - possibly the only one in the side in any form at all - but there was an inevitability about his performance. Dhoni calms nerves in one-day cricket, and there is little doubt that in the era after Ganguly, Dravid and Tendulkar, he is India's best limited-overs batsman.

It is just as true, though, that at 190 for 5 in a Test match he doesn't quite give you the feeling that all is well. His batting numbers in Test cricket are not bad - in the pre-Gilchrist era they would have been considered excellent - but he doesn't seem to control the game in quite the same way. And while Dhoni the Test player is good (average 38), Dhoni the one-day cricketer is a giant. You would worry, for example, if India had to bat him at No. 6 in a Test match; you wouldn't at all if he were a permanent No. 5 in the one-day game. Indeed, that is where I am convinced he should bat, because it provides the right balance between him playing as many balls as possible and ensuring he is in when the last few overs are being bowled.

Having said that, at six he evokes feelings similar to those Australian supporters will have had with Michael Bevan, and it is an interesting exercise to compare numbers and, indeed, to realise how similar they are. Bevan has 6912 runs from 232 games at 53.58, Dhoni 7215 from 216 at 52.28. It could be argued that they are beneficiaries of the many not-outs that invariably come when you bat No. 6, though batsmen who play in that position would be just as entitled to argue that they are not guaranteed as many deliveries as a No. 3, for example. But if you take away the not-outs and do a straight runs-by-innings calculation, Bevan gets 35.26 to Dhoni's 37.38.

As an aside, that demand to take away the effect of not-outs comes largely from top- order players, and I have heard it stridently argued by one such Australian cricketer, who thought players like Bevan liked the not-out rather too much and that therefore players like him were more valuable in the second innings than in the first, where the desire to stay unbeaten could result in fewer runs for the team. (When you have been around for a while you realise that the genesis of most points of view lies in where a particular player's numbers are strongest!)

So then, on to No. 6 itself, where Dhoni at 43.47 might seem to lag behind Bevan at 56.71 - until you look at those innings where batsmen have been out (which, I must admit, is not a clinching argument). Here he does 26.17 to Bevan's 27.94. The Bevan camp might say Dhoni didn't enjoy batting in South Africa (21.70 from ten innings), and that would be countered by the Dhoni camp (Bevan in Sri Lanka: 27.28 from 20 innings). (In fact, Dhoni's numbers in South Africa are part of a larger trend that shows the batting averages of all Indian batsmen take substantial dips in that country).

I believe Dhoni has something of an attitude that allows him to enjoy the one-day game more than a Test match, or indeed more than a T20. Witness how he sneaks overs in from part-timers, lets a bowler go all ten at a time, lets his instincts run

Interestingly Bevan never became a force in Test cricket, though he scored Sheffield Shield runs by the bagful. There was talk that he didn't like the short-pitched ball, though he must have got plenty of them in first class cricket in Australia. I rather think he was more suited to the one-day game, where his hit-the-gap-and-run-hard style was so effective. Dhoni too, till he unfurls shots later in the innings, is a jabber, a streetsmart batsman who gives you the impression he is in a boxing ring sometimes: jab, punch, defend, defend, jab...

I also believe it is something of that attitude that allows him to enjoy the one-day game more than a Test match, or indeed more than a T20. Witness how he sneaks overs in from part-timers, lets a bowler go all ten at a time, lets his instincts run. He makes no secret of the fact that he enjoys the one-day game. And in it he can get by some days with a weak bowling side, which he can't do in Test matches, where he can often spend an hour searching for a bowler. Don't forget that he never had access to the giant-hearted Anil Kumble, and that Harbhajan Singh seemed to be past his best most times when he bowled for Dhoni. You can see it is a combination that allows Test matches to drift at times.

So can we look elsewhere for a Test captain? Virat Kohli has only played 15 Tests, and it would be counter-productive to make him captain while he goes through a cycle of bad and good times. I fear there is a question mark over Virender Sehwag's long-term future, and while I hope that is dispelled quickly, it doesn't make giving him the leadership a sound long-term decision. And I think Gautam Gambhir needs to focus just now on being the batsman he can be without worrying about being the leader that he might be. So, you see, we've come to the end!

But there is one thing Dhoni can do. As some of us suggested (Rahul Dravid among them), giving up the T20 captaincy might be an option - not just the India job, those are too few matches to count, but the Chennai Super Kings one as well. That will give him two months of cricket to enjoy, allow him to look at the game in a different light, and give Suresh Raina a responsibility that I think he will grow into very well. It might be good for franchise and country.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here