MS Dhoni is raging against the dying sun; it shows in the technical changes he has made to his batting. He has, by his own admission, not been the most technically correct batsman around. In his prime, he has relied on finding a way out in the middle as opposed to fiddling with his technique, but now with pressure mounting on him and with bowlers fancying bowling to him in pressure moments, Dhoni has been looking to work on his technique. In the series where he is set to become only the 20th cricketer to reach 300 ODI caps, Dhoni has quietly done two things, arguably for the first time in his career: shuffle back and across and thus introduce a trigger movement, and give up his favourite Morrant pads in favour of more commonly used ones.
It is curious that Dhoni, at this stage of his career, would move from pads that are almost idiosyncratic. Only a few batsmen in the world use Morrant pads. Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly did. As do Dhoni and R Ashwin. The best way to tell between Morrant pads and the regular ones is the straps on the back: Morrants have two, others three. These pads are lighter by at least 200 grams, which makes the move even more curious because conventionally you want your pads to be lighter as you grow older.
Former India batsman Aakash Chopra feels the likeliest reason for the switch could be to allow him to bend his front knee properly. If there is a minor drawback in Morrants, it is that they don't allow free flexion of the front knee. Because there are just two straps, the higher strap is almost right behind the knee. During the Indian Premier League, Dhoni did spend time working on a more balanced knee flexion. Many a session went with just him and Rising Pune Supergiant analyst A Prasanna recording his batting in the nets and then discussing it. He has been working on balance in the stance and his bat swing.
This change of pads could be a continuation of that or an altogether new attempt at getting his front knee to bend properly when facing spinners. It is worth noting that Dhoni has struggled to take singles in the middle overs of ODIs, which is when spinners usually operate.
The trigger movement - first the back foot goes from leg to off, then the front foot follows, all before the bowler has released the ball - is remarkable because Dhoni has been one of the rare batsmen who don't blink before the bowler. For a majority of his career, just like Sehwag, Dhoni has remained absolutely still and reacted only after the bowler has delivered. There are times when the ball is swinging or seaming and Dhoni starts to walk at the bowler, but that he does to upset the bowler's rhythm, in particular to keep them from bowling full and attaining that movement. This shuffle seems more of a permanent move.
Chopra says batsmen are taught to incorporate some trigger movement when they find the bowling to be extra quick. Tendulkar initially didn't have a trigger movement, but introduced a forward press later on in his career. "This helps your body to get in motion," Chopra says. "Once you have got some movement going before the ball is bowled, you get your body set to react."
Chopra does argue against the theory because you are supposed to be still and stable when the ball is delivered. So, in theory, this trigger movement shouldn't make a difference, but perhaps mentally it does because this is a conventionally accepted method to face high pace: make half a movement before the ball is bowled because you won't get time afterwards. This could also be an attempt to get inside the line to balls aimed at his rib cage so that he can hit square on the leg side. At his best, Dhoni used to slog these balls to cow corner and midwicket. Over the last two-three years, this is the ball he has struggled against.
It will be tempting to see his two valuable knocks - 45 not out and 67 not out in the second and third ODIs - in relation to these changes, but these innings haven't tested Dhoni on the two fronts that he has been struggling on: strike rotation in the middle overs and explosive hitting in the end. As of now, these changes could be a realisation and acknowledgement that he is getting late on the ball. That he is comfortable wearing heavier pads only reiterates that fitness is not an issue with Dhoni. Most of all, it is an acknowledgement that Dhoni is in a fight. Against time.