Dhoni's no Gilly clone
Over a century ago, Alice James wrote: "The success or failure of a life, as far as posterity goes, seems to lie in the more or less luck of seizing the right moment of escape."
Over a century ago, Alice James wrote: "The success or failure of a life, as far as posterity goes, seems to lie in the more or less luck of seizing the right moment of escape." For Mahendra Singh Dhoni's fledgling Test career, one such moment arrived this afternoon when he swaggered out to bat with the Indian innings in shambles at 258 for 4. To seize the moment as thrillingly as he then did speaks volumes about the calibre of the man, while also affirming the instinct that had led the team management to fast-track him into the Test side at the expense of Dinesh Karthik, who had done little wrong in his time behind the stumps.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni proved that there is more to his batting than audacious hits over the ropes
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There's little doubt that newspapers and TV channels will harp on and on about the "next Gilchrist", while blissfully ignoring the difference in the methods employed by both men. What Dhoni shares with Gilchrist in his prime is an unshakeable self-belief and the ability to turn a match on its head with thrilling counter-attacks. The similarity ends there though. Gilchrist has made the vast majority of his runs in classical fashion, with splendid drives and cuts and precise lofts over the infield. Though he has improvised often enough, he rarely flirts with the unorthodox or the plain outrageous. Dhoni, by contrast, seems to revel in that realm, and that was exemplified by the cheeky paddle-sweep off Danish Kaneria, and the whipped-tennis-forehand-like shots with which he picked up several runs.
Six years ago, Pakistan were the shell-shocked victims as Gilchrist announced his arrival on the Test stage with an audacious 81 at the Gabba, a stunning effort surpassed only by the incandescent brilliance of the 149 which helped steal a Hobart Test that appeared to be there for Pakistan's taking. After that, he pillaged teams the world over, most notably during the Ashes series of 2001 and in South Africa a few months later. Each time the mighty Australian top order failed, opponents anticipating an unlikely upset would be stymied by a barrage of breathtaking shots, and before they knew it, the fat lady would be singing Advance Australia Fair.
At 281 for 5, with India in a mess largely of their own making and the Pakistani bowlers scenting further success, a counterattack of some ferocity was required. Dhoni provided that with some shots that will linger long in the memory. The savage pull for six off Shoaib announced that he wasn't going to be intimidated even by lightning pace, and the two successive sixes off Kaneria provided the proverbial middle finger after the bowler had stupidly decided to rile him. But each time you thought that he would get carried away, he knuckled down and patted back a ball or two, regaining composure before once again launching an onslaught.
As he showed in a couple of run-chases during the one-day series against Sri Lanka, there's far more to Dhoni than just the big-hitting. Sloggers usually fail because they let the adrenaline take over, but in his case, the rushes are interspersed with periods of relative calm. As with Shahid Afridi during his devastating knock of 156, there's a method to the madness, even when it's not easily apparent.
Dhoni though would be the first to admit that he merely built on the fabulous foundation that had been laid by Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, who had ended the morning session looking like they could do a Kolkata and bat forever. Laxman started circumspectly, with Dravid provided most of the positive intent, but by mid-morning they were in cruise control, comfortably keeping out the bowlers and picking off the bad balls as only the very best in the business can.
A midjudgement of length cost Laxman the century that he so deserved, while a lethargic attempt at a single saw off Dravid. To be honest, that looked like the only way he was ever going to get out, such was his command over the proceedings. Over the last two innings, Dravid has batted better, and with more composure, than any other Indian opener since Sunil Gavaskar - Virender Sehwag excluded, because he defies categorisation. For the team management, it's a happy problem to have. As for those who doubted his ability to lead from the front, they're nowhere to be seen. Good riddance...
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo