March 3, 2016

Who will rain on Dhoni's parade?

Australia, England and South Africa can pose some threats, but the hosts are favourites
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MS Dhoni: bunker down and crush 'em © Getty Images

The T20 World Cup begins in a minute. It is an easy tournament to predict. On the evidence that no one plays so well away from home these days, India will win. The last two 50-over World Cups have been won by the home team, a result hitherto unachieved. It's all about home, and home is where a billion people's hearts will be over the next month. Sensible heads from all over the world will be there too, all thinking the same thing. India to win.

India were brilliant in Australia, against the Australian 2nd XI that is. Smashed them Aussies 3-0. Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli out-batted the second-string attack. MS Dhoni engaged wholly. Of course he did, the treasures before him are irresistible. He won the World Cup in 2011 and its little brother would make a glorious addition to the CV. What a cricketer this man is. The ballsiest run chaser ever - Michael Bevan included, though it is a tight call - and the most ballistic too, on his day. He does stuff others dream about.

I interviewed him for a rather good English cricket magazine, All Out Cricket, two years ago. He talked about chasing as if he were a Roman imperator waiting upon Nearer Gaul. Take it to the point where they are more scared than you, was his theme. In other words, the batsman is the one perceived to be under the most pressure, but make sure it is not so. If you get out, he says, you can't win your team the game. Simple. So stay in. Bunker down till breaking point, then crush them. It is a hard tactic to argue and he proves it correct more often than the enemy dare to mention.

A number of things come together to make such influence and effect. First among them is the power of his personality. Like, say, Shane Warne or Ricky Ponting - or going back a while, Imran Khan, Viv Richards and Ian Botham - Dhoni imposes himself upon you. It is an intimidation of sorts, a sense of ownership of the moment that creates doubt, fear and awe in the opponent. If you are left bowling to Dhoni at the death, you are not - consciously or subconsciously - backing yourself. Worse still, you are probably backing him.

Take it to the point where they are more scared than you, was Dhoni's theme. In other words, the batsman is the one perceived to be under the most pressure, but make sure it is not so

He is India's cricketing Caesar. He plays football for a warm-up, never practises glove work, has the odd net session with bat and ball and, at them, bowls more bouncers than his front-line speedsters. In other words, he does exactly as he pleases. Coaches close to him, Gary Kirsten and Stephen Fleming particularly, marvel at his instinct and calm. He is no great planner, more a reactor. But he never departs from reality.

Dhoni is gifted, Dhoni is mischievous, Dhoni is dictatorial, Dhoni is driven and Dhoni is alert to every whisper around him. He trusts only a few and rarely declares his hand. He speaks in unarguable, often repetitive, rhetoric, dragging out debate that does not much matter to cover up that which does. This is the way he copes with the almost impossible task of leading Indian cricket. Kohli has long coveted his job and will be surprised by just how much it invades his every waking hour.

Dhoni is the most modern cricketer of all cricketers, dividing his time between the various formats as if he has responsibility to the senate to answer for all the issues of the day, which, of course, he has had. Test cricket is no longer in his remit. Kohli has begun the accession. If Dhoni pulls off this tournament, he will surely qualify for a triumph - a sort of elaborate celebration of homecoming and retirement, granted by the BCCI to honour his victories.

Who can stop him? Oddly enough, England could. Eoin Morgan's men are on the right track. Their approach is no longer shackled by a mean professional's past. The key will be to apply themselves a little better to the specifics of the moment. When Warne led Rajasthan Royals to the first IPL title, he encouraged each player to have a "time out": a three-to-ten-second mental and physical break at the points when the pressure became unbearable, or unintelligible. In these 20-over innings you absolutely have to keep thinking. A single ball can change a whole match. There is no excuse for it to be delivered without care and attention, only for it to be delivered poorly with care and attention. Somehow, you have to keep breathing. Breathing sends oxygen to the brain and alleviates both pressure and pain.

AB de Villiers: can do anything © AFP

Australia can stop Dhoni but, a little like England, will have to play spin better on spinning pitches. Both teams lamp the spinners on flat pitches but greater nous is needed to outwit Ravi Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Yuvraj Singh on a dustbowl. Shane Watson must open with David Warner and take responsibility to bat long. One of England's dynamic front three must do the same. Moeen Ali must be moved up the order. The Australians have considerable IPL experience. England do not.

Watch out for South Africa. Until the semi-final stage, that is (old joke). South Africa have their own Dhoni in AB de Villiers, a modern freak, and suddenly have a few faces hitherto unidentified - men like Chris Morris and David Wiese - who can shake things up a little, even shake off the old joke, because AB cannot do the finishing alone. Faf du Plessis is a smart captain. South Africa are real contenders.

Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh are short of class but will cope okay with the conditions. West Indies are short of brains but have IPL history in their ranks. New Zealand are worth a look for they have a savvy bunch of scrappers and some mighty hitting power to boot.

Not a single fast bowler mentioned in this despatch. Their tricks are being understood and dismissed. Magicians say that once is a trick, twice is a lesson. Maybe the yorker will trend again. It ought to. And maybe, given the dry surfaces, reverse swing will rear its pretty head. That would be a bonus.

Back to the winner's enclosure and the more I think about it, the more there appear to be just the four candidates. The big four.

With only one winner. Dhoni.

Bring on the triumph.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jay57870 on March 8, 2016, 11:14 GMT

    Mark - The WT20 2016 race is wide open. T20 is cricket's equalizer, with IPL coalescing the best players around the world together. They know each other. There are no secrets. Competition is level. Nicholas says there are 4 candidates: SA, Oz, Eng & Ind. He picks India to win it all. Take a look at history: there have been 5 different champs in the 5 previous WT20 editions since 2007: Ind (in SA); Pak (in UK); Eng (in WI); WI (in SL); and SL (in BD). No team has won it at home. So why pick (on) India? Because Dhoni is "India's cricketing Caesar"? Really? In ancient Rome, star power fueled narcissism, which is what weakened Caesar. They conspired to assassinate him. Dhoni is no Caesar. In Mark's AOC interview, charismatic Mahi emerges as a "uber-cool figure...most crucially, to stay humble...assume nothing...what matters is staying in"! And he does finish well. Read: you bat second. Assume: you win the toss. It's a Coin Flip: That's T20 indeed! Your guess is as good as mine, Mark!!

  • kanad_Boston on March 8, 2016, 10:58 GMT

    Therefore, it is once again proven that India's final victory in Asia Cup 2016 is a cumulative success. What India had achieved in the league stage created the high probability that they would be the champion. Still, it was not guaranteed. Let us see what happens in WC T20. The cumulative statistical data obtained in the Asia cup remains effective in WC T20 also. From the same point of view BD also has high probability. Frankly speaking BD did not have to play in the qualifying round. Still, a single T20 match is a flip of a coin.

  • forExcelienceInCricket on March 5, 2016, 7:29 GMT

    T20 format in cricket is full of possibilities & theoretically any of top 8 could win the title. IND,SA are top 2 contenders for SF slot. IND have an ideal mix of youth & experience with excellent fielding to dominate WC 2016. Mature batting by Kohli & Rohit in recent times is a great sign. IND's top 3 batsmen have to manage the power play risks & bowlers will have to contain big hitters of opposition. If IND play to full potential in T20 WC 2016 another title win is on cards. When the going gets tough, tough get going fits MSD perfectly. IND won T20WC 2007, CWC 2011, CT 2013 (with a new look team). During last 2 yrs IND have missed opportunities of test series wins in SA/NZ/ENG/AUS through batting errors & dropped catches. Also in shorter formats IND missed title wins in T20WC 2014 & CWC 2015 through batting errors. MSD has already leap frogged as the best ever captain in all formats of World Cricket in history of the game. A win in T20WC 2016 will add another feather in MSD's cap.

  •   Abhijeet Kushe on March 4, 2016, 19:57 GMT

    West Indies and Bangladesh are the only 2 teams that can upset India if the conditions are flat or spinning.Bangladesh because they are relatively new (India have figured out Pak and Srilanka) and West Indies because of the Gayle factor

  •   Valentino A St Clair on March 4, 2016, 19:55 GMT

    Clearly, a team ranked third in the world in T20, champions in 2012 and semi finalists in 2014 does not lack "brains" West Indies will be a force to deal with in this tournament.

  • GrindAR on March 4, 2016, 19:09 GMT

    I see WI can spoil high end team parties in each stage. Wish they get inspiration from their U19 counterparts. I really like WI to play with their true self, forgetting about whats happening in their dressing room/WICB sagas. Lets love Cricket game and play for fun this tournament WI. Its long due that you guys shrug off the banters outside the field.

  • OmerPaki123 on March 4, 2016, 18:29 GMT

    i really don't think that u can call anyone "favourites" as its a t20 if a side clicks at the right moment they will win the cup like in the PSL islamabad did not start so well but they clicked at the right time and won the title.

  •   Kishore V Nath on March 4, 2016, 17:22 GMT

    Yes, clearly India start favourites but such is the format that one extra ordinary performance with the bat or ball from any team could swing the game in a knock out clash. Also, the key for any team against India is to remove Rohit and Kohli cheaply and then it could be interesting how the other batsmen go about. Because in recent times, in almost every game, either of those have made sure they bat most overs.

  • cricketview on March 4, 2016, 12:03 GMT

    It is very tough to beat India with this team in ODI and T20 anywhere in world. This is perfect team one can have. A proper all rounder with 2 good pacers and worlds best no.1 , no.2 spinners in cricket. Batting wise there is class from top to lower order. It is a perfect team. Pakistan many say has a great bowling side but in fact they have an average attack which failed in almost all games on green tops plus obviously they have no spinners. Bangladesh is good and SA ( till knock outs only ) are good sides for upsetting India , but it looks very hard. WI is too un predictable team and New Zealand and Australia can not play spin , especially Australia. England is a solid contender.