Team balance top of Dhoni's priorities
MS Dhoni just hates giving away runs. Even while standing on the boundary to fetch lofted shots during nets, he sprints around as if in a game, straining and stretching to stop everything. He gives the substantial Hambantota outfield a furtive look, as if already calculating how many extra runs it will cost him. Call him defensive, call him pragmatic, but you get an insight into his thinking when at the start of a season, one of his major concerns is what he calls the lack of a "real part-timer" in the Indian squad. He mentioned Yuvraj Singh and Ravindra Jadeja in that category; neither of them has made the trip to Sri Lanka. Irfan Pathan has, but that is another conundrum for another day.
Dhoni acknowledged Irfan's availability, but instantly proceeded to expound on the problem of the part-timer. "The coming in of Irfan gives us the liberty of playing five specialist bowlers," Dhoni said. "We can play two spinners along with three fast bowlers as Irfan can do a bit of batting but what also needs to be considered is what kind of a combination we actually want.
"We don't have a real part-timer, in the sense that when Yuvraj was there, he can bowl, even if he is having an off-day, four to five overs, or when Jadeja is there he can bowl four to five overs minimum and you can rotate the bowlers and get the ten overs out of them. But if we play with four bowlers, the catch-22 situation is that the rest of the overs will be bowled by Viru paa [Sehwag], Rohit [Sharma], [Suresh] Raina. Things can get a little difficult as Sri Lanka is a very experienced side and will see as to this is the bowler who has to be targeted. It is not only them; we have also done it in the past."
What must also be worrying Dhoni, and placing additional value on having a quality part-timer, is the disappointing run of his main bowlers since the World Cup win. Bowling, especially at the death, cost India a place in the Asia Cup final. Since the World Cup, only Canada and Zimbabwe's attacks have been more expensive in ODIs, and only Zimbabwe have found taking a wicket costlier than India have.
Since the World Cup final, Zaheer Khan has managed to play just four ODIs. Zaheer's five wickets in those four games have cost nearly 40 runs each. As have Umesh Yadav's 15 wickets from 12 games in the same period. Ashok Dinda has mostly been on the fringes. Irfan's 13 wickets from eight games at an average below 30 suddenly look even better than they are by comparison. R Ashwin has had the best returns since the World Cup, with 33 wickets in 26 games at an average of 33.12 and an economy-rate of 4.81.
Already, Dhoni has been asked whether he will look to rest Zaheer during this series. "It is very important but I don't think we need to think about it from right the first game because we have to also get him match-fit," Dhoni said with a knowing smile. "I don't mean he is unfit, we do a lot of fitness [work], but match fitness is slightly different. The more games he plays, the better he gets. In between, yes, if we have the time and the situation, we would like to give him rest, but we are not thinking about it at the moment."
The batting, as always, poses far fewer worries. Dhoni said India rely a lot on their top three, and a much-fitter looking Virender Sehwag has some work to do. He's played fewer ODIs than Sachin Tendulkar since the World Cup, and apart from the double-hundred against West Indies in Indore, he has not gone past 30. Of course, we know what will be bothering Dhoni the most. Certainly not the batting.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo