MS Dhoni has just gone past Adam Gilchrist and is only behind Kumar Sangakkara on the list of wicketkeepers who have scored the most runs in one-day internationals. While the other two were top-order batsmen, Dhoni has achieved this feat batting in the lower half of the batting order.
Batting in one-day cricket is lopsided in favour of the top three batsmen, and so, most batting records belong to them. This is not to take any credit away from the two left-handers who were so good at their craft that their teams sent them in at the top of the order, but it will count as a failure to read the numbers right if we fail to place Dhoni's stats in context. The number at which Dhoni batted most of his career is considered to be the toughest position to bat at in 50-overs cricket. Nine out of ten times he would get only a handful of overs to bat, and he had to hit the ground running when he came in.
The top order is allowed to gradually build pace but lower-order batsmen aren't permitted that luxury. They are asked to jump on a treadmill that is already running (speed set by the previous occupant) and the brief is to either keep the pace or step it up, moments after getting on. The only time lower-order batsmen are allowed to set the pace is when there has been a top-order collapse, and therefore getting out is not an option.
Dhoni has been doing this for a decade. He is undoubtedly the best finisher the world has ever seen. I put him ahead of Michael Bevan, because while both Dhoni and Bevan could break down a chase with precision, Bevan could only do it with singles, twos and fours, while Dhoni had a sixth gear that allowed him to deposit the ball far and beyond.
"The things that separated Dhoni from some of the biggest hitters in the world were his judgement of ones and twos, and his possession of the lower-body strength needed to take runs with ease. And he did all this without playing the square cut and booming cover drives, or sweeping spinners"
Dhoni's biggest strength was his ability to read the game and his belief in his own abilities. While he could hit sixes at will, he never allowed ego to come in the way of building an innings and of doing what he thought was right for the team. It is hard to recall a Dhoni dismissal where he played to the gallery and was out.
The things that separated him from some of the biggest hitters in the world were his judgement of ones and twos, and his possession of the lower-body strength needed to take runs with ease. And he did all this without playing the square cut and booming cover drives, or sweeping spinners. Not that he couldn't cut, cover-drive and sweep, but the nature of his game didn't allow him to use those strokes frequently.
His preferred method was to plant his front foot a long way down and work the ball into gaps. Once in a while, he went deep inside the crease but to either muscle it through extra cover or midwicket. You would rarely see him collect boundaries behind point or behind square against spinners. Dhoni's ability to hit sixes without even using his feet prevented captains from positioning fielders closer to the bat, and Dhoni used that threat to rotate strike. Of course, once in a while he would also go aerial.
The other, more impressive, aspect of Dhoni's modus operandi while chasing was to take the game as deep as possible. It's one thing to say that the best way to chase is to stay in the game for as long as possible, but it takes a lot to do it successfully. When you see the asking rate climb, you tend to panic a little; it takes only a couple of dot balls to force a batsman to manufacture a shot or attempt a non-existent run. The only way to stay sane in the last few overs of a critical chase is to have unwavering faith in your own abilities and in the knowledge accumulated through experience of pulling it off time and again.
Lately things have changed a little. Dhoni's dot-ball percentage has gone up by about 4% since 2015, and the percentage of singles taken in the middle overs has declined by 5% too. And while there's no change in his strike rate in the last ten overs, he is getting out more often in that period than he did a few years ago.
It's understandable that you can't do at 35 the things you did at 25. Reflexes tend to slow down, and you lose the gift of timing to hit the long ball right from the beginning of an innings. Dhoni has acknowledged these changes, and for two years he has made his intention to bat higher up the order quite clear. He needs more time to build now and accelerates later than he used to.
The combination of the presence of an extra fielder inside the circle and Dhoni's need to now bide his time has encouraged captains to post fielders closer to the bat. Also, since Dhoni doesn't cut, cover-drive or sweep, captains have started posting those fielders inside the circle, which in turn has increased the dot-ball percentage in the middle overs. Dhoni did try the sweep against England but was out leg-before, and since then he has shelved it in the early part of his innings.
Except England, all teams follow a particular pattern in ODIs - go slow at the beginning, keep wickets in hand, and then explode. Openers start cautiously and the top order scores at 5-5.5 runs an over till about 30 overs. From there, there's a tendency to treat an ODI as a T20, if there are seven or eight wickets in hand. If you fail to score 70 between overs 31 and 40 in such circumstances, you end up a little short, regardless of how much you made the last ten overs count.
Unless Dhoni gets to the middle by the 25th over, starting slowly is no longer a viable option for him. While chasing, he still plays the way he used to a few years ago, working slowly towards a crescendo, and he would pull off that finale almost every time in the past. It isn't happening often enough now, though.
Perhaps it's time to rethink the method and pace innings a little differently. Leaving it till the final over was an audacious strategy that only Dhoni could pull off, but since that's not succeeding very often, he might want to change gears and step on the accelerator a little earlier.
There are four parameters to judge the greatness of a player: 1. longevity of a career, 2. statistics, 3. impact on results, 4. adaptability. Dhoni has the first three, and he has somewhat ticked the fourth box too, with the way he has adapted to overseas conditions in the longer format. But this is yet another test of his ability to adapt to change, and if he is able to adopt a different path, he might finish nearly as strongly as he started.