In the dying overs of an ODI game, Iftikhar Anjum - the right-arm medium-pacer from Pakistan, moved the fine-leg fielder inside the circle. Next, and according to plan, he bowled a lethal yorker. Unabashedly, the batsman went down on one knee to sweep him past short fine leg. That was a tad too much for Anjum to abide by. Next ball, he sent the fine leg back to patrol the fence and brought in the third-man fielder inside the circle. This time, the batsman played a cheeky reverse-sweep past the short third-man fielder. While most batsmen would go on the defensive when the bowler is on the offensive, few, very few, retort in an equally or more aggressive and assertive fashion. This batsman did, then, and continues to even now.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni may have, over the years been recognized for his gritty and unruffled sort of cricket, but it was this match - an India A encounter against Pakistan A in Kenya way back in 2004 - with his two fours in two balls, that scripted the story of his years to come. As his teammate and as a spectator, it told me almost everything there was to know about this man. For starters, it was quite evident that Dhoni wasn't the one to fuss about copious technical jargons painstakingly etched in the many revered coaching manuals. That he would create his own rules - with an air of self-assurance, was for everyone to see.
The fact that his game wasn't built to please the purists parked in the plush President Box but for fans in the gallery, was unmistakable too. More importantly, it was Dhoni's raw passion and gusto that seemed to be defining each of his innings. Looking at him, one felt that he played for the sheer joy of it all.
He has both the brutal force to create a big shot out of nothing and also the finesse to place the ball between the two fielders at the deep
It's ironic that Dhoni, ever since he's become the captain of the Indian cricket team, talks only about the process and not the results. That's a journey only a few take and accomplish.
From a technical vantage point, Dhoni's batting followed the simple principles of finding a way to score runs on every ball that was bowled to him. He built his initial game on his ability to clear the fence, for he had the strength to do it with aplomb against the slower bowlers. He refrained from using his feet too much to generate power to clear the fence and hence was always a difficult batsman to bowl to. It's a lot easier to bowl to a batsman who's a slave of his feet movement to generate power and momentum because often the eagerness to get close to the ball ends up in moving out a little earlier than one should, and that gives the bowler a chance to adjust. But if the batsman stays glued to his crease even when the intention is to take the aerial route, invariably the bowler falls into the trap. While he wasn't equally comfortable against the quicker bowlers in the beginning, he got better as his career progressed. There was something else, equally critical, which evolved at a rapid pace - his ability to read the game and change his game accordingly.
If you know that you can clear the fence at will, you often end up focusing and banking on that strength a bit too much. So much so that you completely ignore the importance of rotating the strike and playing the street-smart brand of cricket. Well, why wouldn't you, for taking six singles off six balls is a painstakingly slow and tiring process, especially when you can get as many off one ball. A batsman called Atul Bedade comes to my mind here - he had the gift of hitting sixes at will. Ironically, his international career got over before you could spell 'cricket' because he didn't have a second gear. But Dhoni's maturity belied his age, for he realized the importance of taking singles very early in his career. Even though he knew how to clear the fence, he would run between the wickets like his life depended on it. Even today, after all the wear and tear, he's still extremely fast between the stumps. He's also an astute judge of how many runs are on offer considering the strengths and weaknesses of the fielder pouncing on the ball - and that's a quality worth its weight in gold. In fact, during most team meetings, players settle on throwing to the other end when Dhoni is batting, simply because it's so difficult to keep up with his pace. No wonder we seldom see him falling short of the crease. He's also blessed with legs like tree-trunks, and that has little to do with the amount of time he spends in the gym. He isn't big on lifting a lot of weights or long distance running but focuses on sprints all the time. During the same India A tour of Zimbabwe and Kenya in 2004, he would invariably find ways to chicken out of running long-distance. He'd not only be the first to participate in the short sprints session, but would come first in every sprint that we ran. He admitted that he found running long-distance quite monotonous.
Fortunately, there's never a monotonous moment when he's in the middle with the willow in his hands, for the man is always on the move. While his legs are his best ally when it comes to running between the wickets, it's his hands that do most of the talking while batting, especially against the quicker bowlers. Playing spin is his strength and that's when his feet complement the hands to either get to the pitch of the ball or take him deep inside the crease to get more time to hit the short ball. He has both the brutal force to create a big shot out of nothing and also the finesse to place the ball between the two fielders at the deep for a quick couple of runs. Spare a moment of thought for the fielders stationed on the fence when Dhoni is batting, for half the time they're looking upwards and backwards to see the ball sail over their heads into the crowd, which pushes them right to the edge of the fence. And when they're sitting on the fence without taking a long start they're made to look like fools, for Dhoni steals a double by taking the pace off the ball. His astute sense of acceleration is the most fascinating part of his limited overs game, for he invariably starts slowly focusing only on ones and twos, then an occasional boundary to keep the required run rate - if batting second - in check and then he owns the strike to bludgeon everything that's sent his way. His batting is a perfect concoction of a butcher's strength and a surgeon's precision.
It's not just the slow bowling that he owns in the limited overs format, for even the world's quickest bowlers don't feel completely at ease while bowling to him in the death overs. Sample this - what would Dale Steyn or Lasith Malinga bowl to a set batsman in the death overs? It's quite straightforward that they'll use their extra pace to bowl bouncers and yorkers, and use the same pace as a decoy to slip in a few slower ones. Now, what are Dhoni's strengths? He's not the one who gets perturbed by bouncers; in fact, he's capable of hitting them for fours every time a bowler attempts that. He's found a unique way of clearing the front leg to get under the ball whenever a yorker is attempted, and his ability to stay very still at the crease in the death overs coupled with his arm-strength allows him to delay his shot without losing momentum or power the moment he spots a slower one. Since Dhoni has efficient responses to whatever a fast bowler can throw at him in the death overs, it's fair to say that his staying till the end is usually fruitful for the team he's batting for.
Dhoni can play almost every shot in the book. Yet, somehow he hasn't mastered the cover drive, and in my opinion, that's one shot a batsman can't do without
Batting in Test matches is a different kettle of fish though, for that's where his technique - or the lack of it - comes to the forefront and makes him fallible. Dhoni can play almost every shot that's there in the book; in fact, along the way he has also invented a few, like the helicopter shot. Yet, somehow he hasn't mastered the cover drive, and in my opinion, that's one shot a batsman can't do without. Most fast bowlers keep a few fielders in the slip cordon and bowl outside off (Test cricket allows them to drift further away from the batsman too) at a length that draws the batsman forward. There are only two shots that you can play on these deliveries - leave them alone for nothing, or drive through the covers for runs. Dhoni's basic instinct to attack and accumulate runs forces him to play the drive but his lack of feet movement keeps him a little away from the ball on most occasions, resulting in outside edges. He's predominantly a bottom-handed player and most of his strokes, even on the front foot through the off side bear an imprint of the bottom hand in action. Bottom hand domination coupled with lack of feet movement is the perfect recipe for disaster when playing an aggressive stroke off a fast bowler on a slightly helpful pitch. Also, the same can land you in trouble if the ball bends back in sharply after pitching because the front foot hasn't gone anywhere.
But you can always count on Dhoni to find a new way to deal with his limitations. He's coined quite a bizarre way of handling his weakness - he would walk across and down the pitch to get close to the ball, even in a Test match. Moving so much takes him outside off and then even if he gets beaten by pace of a sharp in-dipper, he gets stuck outside off ruling out the leg-before dismissal. His method isn't foolproof and that's why he hasn't scored a single Test hundred outside the subcontinent but it's still good enough to make him stay relevant. In 2014, during India's last tour of England, he displayed another facet of his mental strength - he walked down the pitch and defended, took a lot of body blows and most importantly left a lot of balls alone. He spent close to twenty hours on the pitch in the five Test matches and showed that mental resolve can even take care of a slightly inferior technique.
Dhoni didn't feature much in the Zimbabwe leg of that India A tour. I would often find him bowling in the nets. As roommates we would get talking and I would tell him to be slightly greedy and bat in the nets, for his chance looked around the corner. His response was an offer - 'I'll bowl to you also in the nets if you wish, and as far as my turn in the middle is concerned, I'll be fine.' The manner in which he uttered those words betrayed his mindset, for he wasn't arrogant about his chances but simply confident that he would succeed, and boy, wasn't he right! The foundation of his cricket is not just his unique technique, his astute cricket brain or his undeniably good luck. It is his belief in his own abilities that has brought him thus far.