March 3, 2016

Who will rain on Dhoni's parade?

Australia, England and South Africa can pose some threats, but the hosts are favourites

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

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