Dhoni's loss of form worries India
It doesn't take much to go wrong for a team to lose a Twenty20 match. India lost to West Indies at Lord's primarily because their opponents, led by Dwayne Bravo's all-round excellence, played a vastly superior game. And yet, in the post-mortem of the defeat, there emerged one key that India have to acknowledge and address before their must-win Super Eight game on Sunday: The struggling form of their captain - and most versatile batsman - and how to compensate for it.
India's strength is that every one of their players is capable of winning a match through individual brilliance. Even the loss of one of the world's most dangerous openers was overcome by a middle-order batsman making the transition to the top of the order seamlessly. They have tried to fortify that advantage with flexibility by attempting to shuffle the middle order according to how the openers fare.
Between Rohit Sharma and Gautam Gambhir, Rohit has been the more aggressive batsman and so India have sent in MS Dhoni at No. 3 should Gambhir fall first to steady one end while Rohit attacks at the other. And if Rohit should be dismissed first, like against West Indies, Suresh Raina will take up the attacking role at No. 3. It's an excellent plan, for a fluid batting order keeps the opposition guessing and batsmen versatile enough to slot into different roles are valuable in the Twenty20 format. The problem, however, is Dhoni's loss of form.
Dhoni has batted in various positions from No. 2 to 8 and, when in form, he's played different roles - from sheet anchor to aggressor - successfully. He even considered opening in the World Twenty20 before offering Rohit the job in Virender Sehwag's absence. In recent times, Dhoni has taken up the responsibility of guiding the innings, holding one end up, scoring at a run-a-ball, letting the other shot-makers attack before joining them.
India have had to manage without a significant contribution from Dhoni so far in this tournament. He struggled during the IPL and carried that indifferent form to England, scoring 6, 9*, 26 and 14 during the warm-ups and group matches. Dhoni batted at No. 3 during those matches ahead of more in-form batsmen. What has hurt India more than Dhoni's lack of runs is his inability to provide any sort of momentum to the innings despite spending adequate time at the crease. He's changed his bats often while in the middle, but not found his timing with any of them.
India's opponents in the group stage - Bangladesh and Ireland - failed to get through India's openers quickly enough to exploit the weakness in the middle. West Indies did not. Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor sent down a bunch of short-of-a-length deliveries and bouncers at the openers, denying Rohit the length and room to play his graceful shots. He was eventually dismissed top-edging a pull and Gambhir too was nearly undone by a bouncer but the ball lobbed over first slip. Raina, who was sent in at No. 3, was also unsettled by short ones before prodding a full ball to the wicketkeeper. The West Indian bowlers rarely pitched anything in the batsman's half.
India were in distress at 29 for 3 when Dhoni began his innings. The plan was to consolidate and play through a few overs without losing wickets before trying to compensate for the balls consumed. Yuvraj executed the plan perfectly, launching the ball to the boundary after a wary start, but Dhoni failed to get out of the mire. He plodded his way to 11, using 23 balls in the process, and was caught at deep point. Yuvraj and Yusuf Pathan recovered, and perhaps Dhoni's dismissal was a blessing for India, for they eventually got to 153. They should have got 170. Too much ground had been conceded and West Indies ensured India couldn't recover it.
India, like most of their opponents, are still fine-tuning their strategies in the shortest format. They need to decide where to bat Dhoni and hit upon a batting order that will carry them through the Super Eights. They have until Sunday to find one.
George Binoy is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo