Question: MS, you are so good at finishing matches off. Just the last six months or so haven't gone to plan. Why do you think that's happening?
MS Dhoni: Because [against] West Indies I didn't bat, Sri Lanka I didn't play, and now just two matches. Last six months that was the schedule for us.
Question: New Zealand, a couple of times. There have been other occasions.
Dhoni: That was one year back.
Question: But why do you think…
India's media manager interrupts, moving on to the next reporter; no follow-up questions are allowed in India's press conferences. Dhoni just smiles at the reporter questioning his finishing abilities.
The line of questioning here, just after India had lost to England in Brisbane, and Dhoni's response say it all. It is a fair question albeit with an incorrect timeframe. It has been more than just the last six months. Dhoni is perhaps the greatest finisher ODI cricket has had. Yet he hasn't been finishing games off of late as well as he used to. His last real match-winning innings in an ODI was a quintessential Dhoni iceman finish when he absorbed all the pressure with the tail for company before turning into a one-on-one with Shaminda Eranga in the final over and winning it.
That innings, though, came in July 2013. Somewhere Dhoni, too, is aware of that. He doesn't need minders to protect him from questions regarding that, but it was clear he didn't like the question. Since that special innings, fighting an injury in a triangular series final, Dhoni has averaged 63.35 and struck at 96.2 per 100 balls. These are great numbers for a No. 6, but there hasn't been a Dhoni classic in this period. He has gone 27 games without a Man-of-the-Match award. Before that he won the award for the best player of the match once every 13 games on an average.
Possibly Dhoni is a victim of his own legend. The finisher doesn't get too many opportunities to finish a game in a manner that will enhance his reputation. An opener gets an opportunity every match, but a batsman like Dhoni only comes into real attention when the situation is dire. Bowlers wizen up to him too. The percentages go against him. He has to keep evolving, but Dhoni's situation means he has had to evolve into a safer batsman.
The game has changed around Dhoni. Two new balls and only four fielders outside the circle means a team cannot play more than six specialist batsmen. And India do not have the allrounder who can slot into that seventh spot. Every batsman has to be more responsible. Moreover Dhoni honed his one-day game in the company of dependable stalwarts such as Yuvraj Singh and Rahul Dravid. Now hardly a match goes by when at least one of the six main batsmen is not suspect. And then, when he carries out a rescue act almost successfully, as he did in Mohali against Australia with an unbeaten 139 from 76 for 4, his bowlers go out and lose the match. Just to rub it in, they lose it to the opposition's No. 8. Just in case you had forgotten there are no hitters in your side after No. 6.
Dhoni has lost all the freedom. There is a certain weariness to Dhoni's game now. You saw that in Melbourne against Australia. He came in to bat at the end of the 35th over. Six wickets in hand in the last 15 overs is not too bad a scenario, but there was a strange circumspection to Dhoni's batting. He fell for 19 off 31. He said he wanted to "delay the slog" because there wasn't much batting behind him in Ravindra Jadeja's absence, but in doing that, he began to play an unnatural game. You increasingly get a sense nowadays that Dhoni is not playing the ball but the situation, not just in that match but in the overall cricketing atmosphere.
Is it also possible, though, that Dhoni's game is on the wane? Recently he has been neutered twice, albeit in T20 cricket. These were situations he loves. Against Sri Lanka in the World T20 final, and against England in the one-off T20 international in Birmingham. Against Sri Lanka he came in to bat in the 19th over, but against the wide yorkers from Lasith Malinga he managed only 4 off 7. Once again it must not be forgotten that he had a limited window to make an impact, but he hardly used to fail in these windows before.
The innings against England was probably the most instructive of all. When Dhoni came in, India needed 50 off 34 balls with seven wickets in hand, which nowadays is par for the course. But Dhoni first felt there was need to do something different, and asked for Jadeja to be promoted ahead of Ambati Rayudu. Then he kept farming the strike when batting with Rayudu until he had trusted himself too much and put himself under too much pressure.
Maybe Dhoni has become too confident in his own legend. When you keep putting yourself under pressure too often, bowlers will come up with ways of bowling well at you in isolation. That is partly happening with Dhoni. His situation right now - and we are scrutinising such acceptable numbers only because it is Dhoni and his contribution to the side has never been a slave to numbers - is a mix of lack of trust - warranted or otherwise - in those around him, of bowlers becoming better at bowling at him, and a dash of over-confidence.
India as a team too are headed the Dhoni way, in that momentum and form are not going to matter that much right now. The easy format of the World Cup allows them that luxury. To win the World Cup you need to win three high-pressure matches, and the passage to those three matches is quite easy. The World Cup will come alive for India only when they reach the quarter-final, which they should. Then will be the metaphorical three last overs. India have the experience of such high-pressure clashes played over a concentrated time. This is when Dhoni is good at not carrying scars from previous losses, just like he can shut out what happened in the previous 99 overs when he enters the 100th.
This is when India will need Dhoni at his best. Maybe before that he should just let himself go. Maybe even bat higher in the order. Just not worry about the world around him too much for a change. Put himself to the test against bowlers who seem to have started bowling better at him, but without any unwanted pressure. Get the blood flowing in those arms. Get that bat used to hitting balls out of the grounds. This is possibly the last time he is taking the ODI team into the metaphorical last over on the big stage. Maybe he needs the freedom of the Batting Powerplay just before that.