Test batting on Dhoni's mind ahead of ODIs
India are usually short on practice and preparation time in international cricket. MS Dhoni is usually philosophical about it. There are only so many days in a year, he seems to often suggest, and that he and his players have to make the most of what they get. India have landed in South Africa on Monday, and are due to play their first international on Thursday, with only one two-day tour game to follow between the ODIs and Tests.
"I don't know if it [preparation time] is enough or not but this is the only time we have," Dhoni said before leaving for South Africa. "We will try to have long practice sessions in the first one or two days that we have with us. We will have one light session before the match, and that is how we will get ready for the ODIs. That is how much we have got, and we have to get the best out of what we've got."
During the second of those long practice sessions, which India have to get the best out of, Dhoni seemed to have batted to his heart's content, properly against the India quicks, spinners and throwdowns from fielding coach Trevor Penney, and rashly against the low-quality net bowlers India had at their disposal. Just when you thought he was leaving, Dhoni padded up again. Behind his net at the Wanderers stood coach Duncan Fletcher, and CM Dhananjay, the team's analyst, was asked to bring a camera.
The surprise came when the red Kookaburras were brought out. Two days before the first ODI of the tour, Dhoni - a man who loves to stay in the present - spent half an hour doing exclusive Test-match practice, even as others around him played the big hits. With no change of ends and other such delays, you can face a good 10 overs in those 30 minutes. Fletcher remained in constant conversation with Dhoni from behind the net. Dhananjay, who is a decent bowler himself if allowed to bowl from 18 yards, and Penney's throwdowns tested Dhoni. At one point, as the ball began to lose some shine, Dhananjay applied a foreign substance to keep it new.
It seemed to be an exercise in moving forward to cover some of the late movement, and after the end of the session you could hear Fletcher telling Dhoni, "You can also ride the swing and play it late." Dhoni's batting was critical to India's success in the home Tests earlier this year, but he has had a weakness against the moving quick ball when he plays with hard hands outside off and edges through. He has in the past said that that is the way he plays and can't do much about it.
Not on this net session's evidence. At the very least, Dhoni is looking at his batting with much more responsibility now that he is the more experienced batsman in the side. He is possibly looking at himself as more than the declaration batsman or the saviour on the odd occasion that has been.
However, this early Test preparation of Dhoni's could have a bigger implication. It was not just Dhoni's batting in India that worked, but it was also the balance his move up to No. 6 provided, with the extra spinner drafted in. There were no tired bowlers around, no soft overs when the ball would become old and take slow turn. Three years ago, in Cape Town, when India had the upper hand in the second innings, their bowlers - playing a third back-to-back Test - lost their sting on day four, although you can't take away from Jacques Kallis' genius that day.
You wondered, though, what if India had an allrounder, like Kallis himself, who could bowl a few fresh overs then. Like the limited preparation time, Dhoni knows there is no proper allrounder in the country. So he combined with Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin to kind of contrive one. The natural question was, if he would be able to do the same outside Asia. If he would be confident enough to do so outside Asia. Before leaving Asia, Dhoni kept his cards close to his chest, but didn't rule out a move up to No. 6.
"Well it's something that we have to go there and decide," Dhoni said. "We have to see the strength of our batting line-up. And at the same time whether four bowlers are good enough to get the opposition out. It's something that we have to weigh out.
"In the last Test match also we played with four bowlers, and Rohit [Sharma] was the one who batted at No. 6. If you see at times five batsmen are not enough, even six are not enough. And if you see the last two Test matches, the No. 6 batsman has had a lot of impact on the game. We will weigh how it is and then decide as to whether 3-1 [bowling] combination is good enough or we have to play with 3-2."
A lot, of course, was going to depend on how Dhoni feels about his batting in the ODIs and in the nets. If he is thinking of not letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would", unlike the cat i' the adage, he is at least spending as much time preparing as he can.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo