Defensive Dhoni hurts India again
Unless New Zealand make a generous declaration and India bat out of their skins on day five, India will have gone 14 Tests and three years without an overseas Test win. Only Zimbabwe have a poorer record over the same period. Admittedly 14 is not a huge number, but that only accentuates the lop-sidedness of the ICC rankings, which give no weightage to how well you have performed away.
However, it is not like India haven't had opportunities to win over the last three years. They shut down a chase in Dominica when there was no way they could have lost the Test; they had an outside chance at Lord's; they were favourites to win Trent Bridge after two days; they had a good chance to put one past Australia at the MCG; and they had chances of their lifetimes at the Wanderers and Basin Reserve. Except for the Wanderers, there is a common thread running through these missed opportunities: a leadership group adamant that modern cricket is all about drying up runs, and a man signing autographs at the deep-point fence.
These turning points have been mentioned before, but they are worth repeating. At Lord's, England went into lunch on day four at 72 for 5, effectively 260 for 5. Ishant Sharma had just bowled a spell of 5-3-4-3, which included two great deliveries to get Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell out. The ball was only 31 overs old. Forty minutes later, MS Dhoni began the middle session with Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh. Yes, India had lost Zaheer Khan, but what was the harm in going down slinging if you were going down anyway?
At Trent Bridge, India had England down at 124 for 8, but fearing an apocalyptic counter-attack from Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan, India went on the defensive again, losing all momentum. In the second innings they refused to take a bona fide run-out, a last moment of inspiration that could have galvanised them. The next two Tests were just a nightmarish daze featuring Alastair Cook and an unfit RP Singh.
In Australia, India's fight lasted only one Test, but what an opportunity it was. At the MCG, you have Australia down at 214 for 6 on day one, a real opportunity in front of you, and Brad Haddin has just arrived, but you bowl to him with a long-on, a deep midwicket and a deep fine leg. In the second innings you have them down at 27 for 4 but are almost coy about attacking, thinking about saving runs and thus getting wickets. After that the tour is a recurring reel of Ishant dropping Michael Clarke, and David Warner pulverising the four Indian horsemen of the apocalypse on the quickest pitch of them all.
In Johannesburg, Dhoni had three fast bowlers who maintained the intensity, and he broke away from type, but something about the closeness of the match told you this was the last time in a long time that he would be risking it all. Sure enough, in the second Test he refused to take the new ball until he was forced to do so after 146 overs, preferring to sit and wait than to take wickets to slow runs down, a tactic that drew criticism from Rahul Dravid, a man who rarely criticises.
Over to Wellington then. On the third morning, his quicks have nicked three men out, New Zealand are five down with about 130 required to make India bat again, the ball is about 45 overs old, and here we have Ishant bowling to Brendon McCullum with no slips and a 6-3 leg-side field. The dropped catch at silly mid-on will be pointed out, which is fair enough, in that an opportunity was created, but in the desire to place men to snap up that rarest of catches, India sacrificed the slips and not the boundary riders.
Ravindra Jadeja bowled 24 unthreatening overs on the afternoon, many of them from over the stumps, just because he was keeping the runs down. He bowled with a long-on and long-off throughout for McCullum, who was happy to milk the singles. This is not to take away from McCullum's effort, but Dhoni underestimated him, in that he tried to block his release shots, expecting a poor shot around the corner. In a marvellous innings, McCullum showed he had enough restraint and discipline to not hole out to those deep fielders. When a slip catch did arrive with New Zealand still less than 100 for 5, India had only one man stationed there, which, as William Shakespeare wrote, was neither here nor there.
It's not that this strategy hasn't worked for Dhoni, but it has worked only in home Tests, where he has actually been able to build up pressure through his spinners. It has worked for him in ODIs. Nor have developments in modern cricket been lost on this space. The bats are heavier, the batsmen are bolder, they generally prefer hitting a slightly risky four to taking four risk-free singles, so captains make them pick up the singles, and boundaries early in the innings give them great confidence, etc. Nor can it be denied that Dhoni doesn't have a Mitchell Johnson or a Dale Steyn in his attack. Or even Ryan Harris. Or even Neil Wagner.
But how defensive is too defensive? Even the fourth day began with New Zealand practically 6 for 5. It was a tense time for the batsmen, who would have had to start afresh against bowlers who had had a night's rest. A wicket in the first session would have reaffirmed India's position as favourites to win the Test. The ball was only 19 overs old. The first ball of the day hit the shoulder of McCullum's bat after seaming away a touch. Still it took India only seven overs to begin to resort to denial as a means of taking wickets. And if India struggled on day four, the seeds for it were sown on the third afternoon when McCullum was allowed to bed in amid strange fields.
It became ridiculous at times. Dhoni once asked Ishant and Mohammed Shami to bowl from round the stumps with a 7-2 off-side field. As a bowler it is difficult to keep up with such fancies. When Rohit Sharma bowled, he had a slip stationed where one would be for fast bowlers. Sunil Gavaskar was so baffled he said, "This one takes the cake. No, this one takes the whole bakery." Throughout, Dhoni kept following the ball, placing fielders wherever the shot went. Those who have watched many of these Tests at the grounds remember all too clearly how a fielder who goes to fetch the ball from the boundary rarely comes back: he is stationed there. Most memorably it happened when Jacques Kallis reverse-swept - yes, reverse-swept - Harbhajan Singh for a four at Newlands, and a deep point was placed instantly.
It has been stated previously that Dhoni is a great ODI batsman, a very good ODI captain and Test captain at home, and that he was just the leader of men India needed after the fractious Greg Chappell regime, but in overseas Tests he always seems to lose the big moments.
You can't blame Dhoni alone, though. The other half of this leadership team is a coach who can be credited with giving Test cricket deep point. Dhoni already was a captain who thought New Zealand need to be set 617 to preserve a series lead. And he met a man who defended the idea that India could lose seven wickets in 15 overs if they went for a 2-0 series win as opposed to 1-0. Between the two of them, they will go any length to save boundaries and eliminate risk.
India have been lucky that these last two "series" have each been only two Tests long. India were competitive in the initial parts of the England and Australia series too. Once they lost the big moments, the rest of those tours were a blur of defeats. India's next two assignments won't be so short. It will be imperative they win the big moments in the initial stages otherwise it is quite possible they will come back with a nightmarish haze. Have India reached the stage where they could do with a Test captain who will be more authoritative in those big moments?
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo