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What Dhoni can learn from McCullum

Brendon McCullum packed the slip cordon at the start of the game ICC

A captain is as good as his team. While nobody will argue with this, players and observers would also agree that sometimes the team is as good as the captain allows it to be. Brendon McCullum didn't have the best team during the last World Cup but he found ways to take it to the final. The single biggest differentiator between other teams and New Zealand was the way McCullum led his side.

There's very little a captain can do when his team is batting, so the focus is on how his team fares in the field. There was an apparent weakness in New Zealand's bowling line-up: there were only four proper bowlers, they had a weak fifth bowler, and there wasn't a sixth bowling option at all. This puts enormous pressure on the four bowlers and the captain because no bowler can afford to have an off day. Corey Anderson was their fifth bowling option, and looking at the cold numbers, some would argue that he had a good World Cup as a bowler. But Anderson punched above his weight thanks to McCullum's leadership skills.

How did McCullum go about leading his four-man attack? He gave his main bowlers the brief to bowl aggressive wicket-taking lines and, more importantly, lengths. He would underline this by placing up to four slips at times. Most bowlers have the tendency to shorten their length the moment they get hit, but McCullum didn't allow that to happen, as he had three or four slips stationed as a constant and visible reminder that he expected his bowlers to pitch it up. He would leave mid-on and mid-off empty, bowl with a 7-2 off-side field, and wouldn't change the field radically even if the bowler went for a couple of boundaries in the over. He put his faith and weight behind the bowler.

This also put the opposition batsmen in a spot. Most limited-overs batsmen are accustomed to playing a certain way. They don't always rely on boundaries to keep the scoreboard moving, especially early in their innings. The typical modus operandi is to open the face of the bat to run the ball down to third man, play with soft hands, drop the ball and rotate strike. McCullum didn't only block that productive third-man region, he also got his fielders within the circle right up to cut off the singles.

Once they were denied their singles, opposition batsmen were forced to come up with different plans. They needed to take risks, and that brought them out of their comfort zone. It isn't easy hitting boundaries while the ball is new, for it brings risks and means putting your wicket on the line. If they played the waiting game against the main bowlers, they had to go all out against Anderson, and that brought him wickets.

McCullum also effectively treated ODIs as 40-over games, for he had only four wicket-taking bowlers. He didn't slip Anderson's overs in at the first possible opportunity.

While he successfully got most opposition batsmen to go hard at his main bowlers, once in a while it didn't work out. For example, South Africa called his bluff in the semi-final, as Anderson had five overs to bowl in the last 10. If rain hadn't interrupted, the match could have been sealed in South Africa's favour in the first half. But that's the thing with bluffing: someday, somebody will call it.

Though McCullum couldn't make his side win the World Cup, he taught everyone an important lesson in captaincy. He showed how one could make the most of his resources and think out of the box in an otherwise regimented world.

The reason for revisiting McCullum's method is that MS Dhoni is facing acute limitations with his bowling unit, and there might be a strong case for him to take a few cues from McCullum's style of captaincy.

A typical ODI bowling innings under Dhoni goes like this: use the main bowlers for the first 12-13 overs, followed by a few overs from the fifth bowler within the first 20 overs, and keep doing it till the 40th over. It might mean bowling the fifth bowler and a part-timer in tandem once in a while too.

Even if a wicket falls, Dhoni seldom attacks from both ends. A fall of a wicket presents two options: 1. Press to take another wicket, or 2. Slip in a few tidy overs from the lesser bowlers. More often than not, Dhoni opts for the second option. To be fair to him, most captains around the world follow the same template. In the Melbourne ODI, Ravindra Jadeja removed Steven Smith but neither Umesh Yadav nor Ishant Sharma bowled from the other end; it was either Gurkeerat Singh or Rishi Dhawan. When Jadeja got rid of George Bailey, Dhoni did bring in Ishant from the opposite end but Ishant and Jadeja bowled in tandem for just three overs. When Ishant dismissed Shaun Marsh (an opportunity to tighten the noose further), Dhoni replaced Jadeja with Barinder Sran in the next over, and he went for 11. While one can understand that Dhoni doesn't want his weaker bowlers to bowl in the last 10 overs, most matches are almost over by that time. India's best chance of restricting this strong Australian batting is by taking wickets and that can only happen if attack is the priority.

One can argue that the conditions in New Zealand during the World Cup were more seamer-friendly, and that McCullum at least had four potential wicket-takers while Dhoni has only a couple. But let's look at the Indian bowling resources a little closely - Ishant might not be an effective ODI bowler but he's growing as a Test bowler, and so it might be possible to give him Test-match fields and demand Test match lines and lengths. Yadav has a tendency to go for runs but is also capable of producing wicket-taking deliveries, and should be encouraged to do so. After he dismissed Aaron Finch and beat Smith to similar deliveries in Melbourne, instead of the slip cordon being strengthened, the solitary slip was removed. Jadeja was getting turn but it took only one shot from George Bailey to push the mid-on fielder back to the fence. There was a strong case to keep a slip and the mid-on fielder inside the circle throughout, for that would have challenged the batsmen more. Also, Dhoni chose to keep his four bowlers for the last 10 overs. Ishant did come in to bowl when Glenn Maxwell was fresh at the crease, but I don't recall seeing a slip in place or a few balls targeting his head.

It may sound like nitpicking, but that's the only thing you can do with this bowling line-up. Traditional ways of handling this bunch of bowlers on flat pitches haven't worked, so there's a case for doing something unorthodox. There's a possibility that this way India might lose the game earlier, but what the heck, a loss is a loss whether it happens in the 49th over or the 42nd.