May 3, 2013

Dhoni and the art of controlling an IPL match

As the game proceeds at breakneck speed around him, his ingenious use of resources often catches the eye

The IPL is a bit like a Bollywood potboiler when Chennai Super Kings are playing. When the opponent and the scoreboard conspire against them, their star, MS Dhoni, marches in with an air of invincibility and bravado, and raises his team from the dead. He is called the best finisher in T20 for a reason: when he's in the middle, one hardly ever doubts the result will not go CSK's way. That's how much sway he holds in the format.

His influence is not just restricted to when he contributes with the bat, but also when he dons the captain's hat. His meticulous manoeuvres on field suggest a dogged approach, and an astute mind at work.

A T20 match unfolds at such a rapid pace that you need to look hard to notice the nuances. An IPL game unfolds even faster, or so it seems. The broadcasters cut to the cheerleaders after every four, six, or wicket, and focus on the WAGs and their reactions in between deliveries. So we rarely get to observe the little things that make an impact on the game. Captaincy is one such aspect that gets very little attention - unfortunately there isn't enough time to focus on the different field positions employed for various bowlers at different stages.

However, Dhoni's ingenious use of resources does catch the eye. Ironically a man who is usually reluctant to flirt with innovative field positions in ODIs and Tests is at its imaginative best in the IPL, especially when dealing with his India team-mates; he obviously knows a lot about their strengths and weaknesses, and leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exploiting them.

Knowing Virat Kohli doesn't play the sweep shot remarkably well, especially early in his innings, made Dhoni place both short fine leg and square leg inside the circle for R Ashwin, an offspinner. The fielding restrictions were off, and there was no need to have those two men in the ring and risk a boundary, but Dhoni sensed a wicket-taking opportunity and went with it. (Kohli didn't fall for it, though, which shows his maturity.)

Similarly, in the game against Delhi Daredevils, there was a concerted effort to bowl short and into Virender Sehwag's body, with a fielder manning the square-leg boundary. Dhoni knew that while Sehwag doesn't play the pull or hook shot that often, he could take the bait if pestered enough. And he did.

For Gautam Gambhir, Dhoni had a fifth slip throughout when the seamers were operating, primarily as a single-saving tactic, for Gambhir likes to play the dab shot through slips. He also had a fielder close, between point and cover, to restrict Gambhir's effective square drive. These may not be big tricks to bank on, but they make a huge difference in defining one's approach, and possibly the eventual outcome.

Dhoni plays with his field positions and bowling changes more in T20s than in the other formats, which betrays his affinity and comfort with this version of the game. Also, his biggest strength, the ability to stay calm under pressure, has the most effect in T20 cricket, for the other two formats run at a much slower pace. In fact, staying calm can be counter-productive at times in Test cricket, for you often need to set the pace of the game and not swim with the current.

Bowling a yorker outside the off stump used to be an effective way to restrict Dhoni, for his bat-swing didn't allow him to go over cover that often, but even that isn't a safe option anymore

The most common mistake a batsman makes while playing a T20 match is to submit to the pace of the game. The game may move at a heightened speed but one ought to remember that a bowler usually takes the same amount of time to run up and deliver as he does in any other format. Also, while big hitting may be the need of the hour, one needs to be aware that you can only hit the ball out of the park if you make the right contact, which means watching the ball till the last moment and not losing one's shape when hitting.

Dhoni ticks all these boxes, and more, while batting in the second half of a T20 innings. For starters, he has abandoned the pre-set batting order this season and usually walked in with about ten overs to spare (in T20 cricket, you don't go by the number of wickets that have fallen but the number of balls left). This has allowed him to bide his time a little. Then his acute game-sense leads him to rotate the strike for the early part, manoeuvre it to his advantage in the next few overs, and own it in the final stretch, displaying an immense self-belief in his skills to clear the fence at will.

From a technical vantage point, Dhoni's ability to not lose shape while playing the big shots sets him apart. He achieves this with legs that create a strong base, fast hands that generate phenomenal bat speed, a very unorthodox bat-swing that finishes with a twirl of the wrists (and not a full extension of his arms), and a tendency to hit with a relatively straight bat - he rarely goes too far across the stumps and doesn't target the square-leg boundary off the front foot.

In addition, he goes deep inside the crease to get under yorkers and create elevation. Bowling a yorker outside the off stump used to be an effective way to restrict Dhoni, for his bat-swing didn't allow him to go over cover that often, but even that isn't a safe option anymore: he has started waiting a little longer and flaying them over the point region.

While Dhoni's ability to not be flustered even when the asking rate is over 12 runs per over is fascinating, his tactical acumen to have fielders in positions that challenge batsmen to come out of their comfort zones, shows his desire to be in complete control of the game. He knows when to go after bowlers, just as he knows when to shift gears, qualities that make him a rare asset in the T20 format.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on May 5, 2013, 10:23 GMT

    post 224 vs Australia dhoni has been in tremendous form, so far this Ipl , every on e is lucky to see a such an exceptional performance from this star captain-batsman. the way he is calculating the risk for the shots and targeting the bowlers is exceptional. Especially the innings with hyderabad and pune showed his caliber and value to the team. But it is unfortunate to see him out in the first match vs mumbai for a great catch. hoping this form would continue for the rest of IPL and in champions trophy.

  • Logan on May 5, 2013, 6:49 GMT

    Gayle is the best starter and Dhoni the best finisher,no debate the facts prove this comment.Gayle can be put under pressure when the expectation are high on him.Dhoni puts the pressure back on the opposition.

  • RAJARAMAN on May 4, 2013, 12:33 GMT

    MSD is a good finisher in IPL ... but IPL is not equivalent of T20 internationals ... MSD has shown very little promise in T20 internationals of late ... he is a good finisher in ODIs ... so let us wait another T20 international to see if MSD is also a good finisher in T20 cricket ...

  • Dummy4 on May 4, 2013, 8:11 GMT

    @ yavaid, just go and see how many from Chennai were selected for Champions Trophy. Out of 15 players selected, 5 come from Chennai. If we assume players were selected based on performance, then you can clearly see why Chennai is doing well in IPL6. Its not purely by Dhoni's captancy skills, though compared to other Indian captains, he has lots of experiene simply bacause he has been the Indian captain for many years now.

  • Dummy4 on May 4, 2013, 7:29 GMT

    @InsaneInsaan - Test cricket is boring - do not mention it? News for you - T20 is also called exhibition cricket - it is not the real deal. Sorry you didnt seem to know this until now - hence I think your comments can be safely ignored.

    The likes of Pollard, or, Ravi Jadeja maybe superstars in the T20 format, however they will not even be mentioned in cricket history's footnotes.

  • mathew on May 4, 2013, 4:35 GMT

    @Naman Gupta, india were never good overseas.Under captaincy of ganguly,india had the best team to win overseas matches with the right mixed of young dravid,laxman,tendulkar,sehwag,Kumble,harbhjan and zaheer khan but still failed to win a series in Australia or even a drawn series in SA.Under dhoni captaincy ,when seniors were performing,india levelled the series in SA for the very first time .But when they travelled to England and Australia,all the seniors were in poor form due to age and now tendulkar is the last man standing ( he is still in poor form) at the moment.So expecting Dhoni to do miracles when entire team fails collectively is not justifiable.Team needs to perform to win matches and captain is as good as the team.When ganguly captaincy,,these great players were in form and thus winning few test matches here and there but not good enough to win overseas test series in Australia or SA.India always win in india with previous captains ( azhar,ganguly) under doctored condition

  • mythily on May 4, 2013, 3:40 GMT

    Posted by Naman Gupta on (May 3, 2013, 22:22 GMT), You need to understand to win test matches,team needs to contribute.When india toured Australia and England, all the senior players were out of form and couldn't even pass 300 in most of the innings.You talk about ganguly captaincy,but under his captaincy,it was Kumble,dravid,laxman,sachin all performed well and they were young and was in form along with good bowlers .Same happened with dhoni and Gary combo,india did well to reach the top spot but when the seniors past their prime,nothing can be done ,even ganguly won't be able to win matches with non performing seniors.You blame dhoni for all the overseas test defeats and when someone credit for overseas win,you come with the team mates performances.Kindly put up the details of the top 6 batsmen performances in Australia and England before talking about captain overseas record.Beside all this he has the most runs as winning captain and most successful captain for india at the moment.

  • Dummy4 on May 3, 2013, 22:22 GMT

    @ Ravi Darira: "We never won a ODI tournament there until Dhoni lead us to win in 2008". Seriously, so it wasn't sachin's century and 90 or batting or gambhir in early stages; it wasn't the wickets taken by praveen kumar, it wasn't the bowling of ishant sharma, sreesanth or irfan pathan in initial stages. And best captain. Mate Sachin is heavily criticised as a poor captain. But even under him India performed much better in Australia and England. That time Pakistan, Australia, South Africa and West Indies were much stronger than today. Under Ganguly and Kumble India almost won a series in Australia (the side was also much better with batting of ponting (at his peak), hayden, gilchrist, waugh, clarke and bowling of brett lee, stuart clark, jason gillespe, stuart macgill). Also you said India were never good everseas. Well if dhoni couldn't improve it (worsen infact) then how is a the best Indian captain, using a witewash on doctored pitches to prove your point.

  • Dummy4 on May 3, 2013, 22:13 GMT

    Hope we see some of this charisma at the Champions trophy next month in Cardiff, Birmingham and at Oval. I am watching two of those three games!!!