Chennai Super Kings' first match of this IPL, against Delhi Daredevils. They lose their third wicket in the ninth over, with the score on 71. It is an okay Twenty20 start, far from a disaster. In fact, a proper batsman sees this as a base where he get his eye in and then looks to explode and aim for 180. No proper batsman here. Out comes Ravindra Jadeja. He scores 17 off 18. Super Kings barely double the score at the end of the eighth over, but thanks to a poorly planned chase and some excellent fielding they win by one run.
Their second match, against Sunrisers Hyderabad. They lose their second wicket in the 14th over, for a score of 135, and out comes MS Dhoni, the batsman who didn't walk out at 71 for 3. He scores 53 off 29, par for the course in T20 cricket after such a start. Super Kings win comfortably.
It is not as though Dhoni is shrewdly picking and choosing his position - go in early after a great start and late after okay ones - just because he can. In the third game they lose their second wicket at 115, but he doesn't come out to bat at No. 4. The reason is, the second wicket has fallen before the 10th over. When the third falls, in the 12th over, duly Dhoni comes out to bat.
In the fourth, a one-sided whopping at the hands of Rajasthan Royals, Super Kings lose their third wicket for 39, in the seventh over. Out comes a man who has never scored a half-century for this team, Dwayne Bravo. When the next wicket falls, in the 10th over, Dhoni duly walks out.
Dhoni is well known, and celebrated, for going blank into matches, not letting meetings and macintoshes cloud his thinking. Of late, though, there is hard to find a more stubborn and premeditated cricketer than Dhoni the batsman. Everything is sorted in his head. Since the start of the last IPL, he has played 26 matches for Super Kings. Only once has he batted before the 10th over, when he has actually taken charge of an innings the way a proper batsman would. That was in the 10th match of the last IPL, when he came in to bat at 64 for 3 in the ninth over against Rajasthan Royals. He scored five off eight.
On other occasions, Mithun Manhas, Jadeja, David Hussey, Bravo, even R Ashwin, have batted ahead of Dhoni because he shall not bat before the 10th over. There is merit in having a role, in not batting early if he can help it, but Dhoni has at times gone to unreasonable extents to stick to a fixed strategy. Just extend this to international Twenty20 cricket and ODIs, and you will find he is similarly reluctant to bat with more than half the overs to go. But he is no Kieron Pollard. Once in a while he can expect himself to build an innings. By avoiding it, Dhoni is selling himself short as a batsman.
Or is he? Has he seen a fall in his own batting? For a lot of premeditation has crept into Dhoni's batting nowadays. Just like with the batting order, he has fixed slots of when to attack, when to preserve, when to take singles. Again, if you are able to manage this successfully, you are the most efficient batsman there ever will be. Just flick the switch, and bat in a certain matter. Batting, though, is more instinctive. More worrying than his batting order, he is not batting by instinct.
When playing ODIs, Dhoni is bogged down by the fact that India are forced to play five bowlers with new regulations. He forces himself to delay the assault, getting obsessed with being there at the start of the 41st over, in the process robbing the innings of all natural flow. Looking for that elusive efficiency he has delaying taking risks. He only hits bad balls now. Other Nos 6 are hitting good balls for boundaries. He is banking on those bad balls when the pressure is on, when it is one on one in the end. He is looking to bully bowlers with his reputation, which works sometimes. Presence counts sometimes. But he is not batting naturally.
Sunday's premeditation was the charge at the bowler. Dhoni must have seen something sitting in the dugout that impressed upon him that the only way to bat on that pitch was to charge at the bowlers. Fair enough. You have a plan, but when you see it is not working you drop it, and let your instinct take over. He came in to bat 2.5 overs after Bravo did, but at the end of the innings he had played one more ball than Bravo, for exactly half the runs. Both were not out.
"I ate too many deliveries," Dhoni said at the presentation. "I should have rotated more freely."
Dhoni was not asked what went wrong in his opinion.
This is what might have gone wrong. Of the 19 dots that Dhoni played - out of 37 - he was down the pitch nine times. He also took 14 singles, which is not an ideal result if you have played 19 dots in an innings of 37 balls. He had left his crease on seven of those occasions. Some of these deliveries were full tosses that got too big on him because he had left the crease. Some of these were long hops he converted into those cramping short-of-a-length deliveries by walking at them. Even to the penultimate ball of the last over, Dhoni had set his base back and in front of leg to try to get under a yorker, but once the ball was wide he left it alone.
Twenty20 is a ruthless format. If you are not getting runs easily, you have to take crazy risks. You can't back yourself too much. Lesser batsmen fall into that trap fairly early, others hold out for a little longer. Dhoni, though, took no risks. He backs himself to win matches if he is there at the end. Yet, instances of that not happening are growing, especially in T20 cricket. An absence of risks here meant Super Kings had registered the 13th-lowest IPL target for the loss of only four wickets at the completion of 20 overs. Six of those 13 belong to Super Kings. This can't be a coincidence.
There is a lot of merit to what Dhoni does. He has brought his teams a lot of limited-overs success by operating the way he does. It shows he backs himself to finish matches. It shows he doesn't panic. The game has moved on, though. Bowlers have wisened to him. He has himself reached an age where he has peaked as a pure batsman. It shows in how bowlers know nowadays that if they bowl short of a length, without letting him hit with a horizontal bat, there is little chance of going for a boundary. For other batsmen in the last few overs, this is not the ideal length. They slog those balls over midwicket or punch it over point. Dhoni struggles to do so.
Maybe Dhoni has always batted with more than normal premeditation. Even when he was young he used to tell Greg Chappell he will win India the match if he bats, say, 15 balls. Or that they will win if they have reached a certain score at the end of the 30th over. With his game deteriorating a little and with others catching up with him, the lack of instinct has become more glaring.
We know he doesn't like meetings, but Dhoni the batsman can do much worse than sitting with Dhoni the limited-overs captain, a man who reacts purely to situations without any preconceived notions, who sometimes pushes himself up with more than 25 overs to go to seal games with a six. The man who tries things, who takes a risk here or there, before it is too late. That's what a lot of batting is.