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Dhoni struggles to bring method to T20's madness

A refusal to play low-percentage cricket is a major ingredient in MS Dhoni's success as an ODI finisher, but that approach is no longer fetching results in T20

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
MS Dhoni works one into the leg side, India v Bangladesh, World T20 2016, Group 2, Bangalore, March 23, 2016

The leg-side nudge for two is one of MS Dhoni's most trusted scoring routes in T20s. In Lauderhill, Dwayne Bravo blocked it with a fielder at midwicket  •  IDI/Getty Images

"Personally I feel I use a bit too much of my brain in this format."
That's MS Dhoni, giving a rare, fascinating insight into the mind of arguably the best finisher in ODI cricket, and also revealing a bit about the shortest format of the game, T20. Of late Dhoni has failed more than he has succeeded, and this could perhaps be a case of a thinking batsman trying in vain to eliminate luck from a format where luck plays a big part, trying to perfect an art that cannot be perfected, and trying all this in the twilight of his career, when his eye and instinct are diminishing, although his legs are still just as strong.
If finishing matches is a gunfight, Dhoni has always wanted to win clinically, shedding as little blood as possible. Delay pulling the trigger, keep moving closer, corner your opponent, then go bang. Which is to say, take the game deep, don't risk losing it by going for the big hit too early, and then back yourself in a one-on-one situation in the final over. It's not that Dhoni necessarily wants to take the game to the last over or the last ball, but he doesn't want to play low-percentage cricket early; he wants to wait for a mistake from the bowler and then pounce on it.
This trait is borne out of habit and a sense of responsibility. From his young days, Dhoni has conditioned himself to come back unbeaten from chases. In any pursuit, you want to leave as little as possible to chance. Dhoni the captain in the field is known to gamble in limited-overs cricket, but with the bat, with more things in his control than when setting fields for error-prone bowlers, he is too proud to swing early and hope for the best.
"If I play so many balls, I am going to finish this game," he used to tell his coaches. Once, in his second proper year in international cricket, he played an irresponsible shot in a paltry chase in Jaipur, exposing low-on-confidence batsmen and giving India squeaky bums. He told the coach, Greg Chappell, he would never do that again. That, and the absence of big-hitting allrounders behind him - or at least that's how he sees it - makes him keep the big shots for the end. So untrusting of others under pressure is he that in Birmingham two years ago he farmed the strike in Ambati Rayudu's company with 17 required off seven balls. India lost by three runs.
Contrast this with the time he needed 23 off the last over in an IPL game in Visakhapatnam. There were no calculations required here. No brain to be used. He knew the non-striking batsman, R Ashwin, couldn't do it, so he farmed the strike and just hit hard with nothing to lose. He won.
With eight required in the last over in Harare, Dhoni trusted Axar Patel and Rishi Dhawan. In fact, it seemed Dhoni might have asked the youngsters to have a go, looking to bat through himself. It showed in how Axar lofted Neville Madziva to long-off, and in how Rishi swung wildly. In Dhoni's mind, this game perhaps reaffirmed the merit of getting close with relatively risk-free cricket before playing the big shots. "Quite a few of the batsmen were set, they were batting well, and at some point of time, especially when you are chasing targets, it is important to take it till the end and then look to play the shots," Dhoni said. "That was something that was lacking in this game."
That brings us to India's one-run defeat in Lauderhill. India were chasing 246, so there was never too much room for using "too much" brain. Dhoni himself played an important part, coming in at 137 for 3 with no batsman behind him. India needed regular big shots, there was no premeditated decision required as to when to play the big shot. Until India required only eight in the last over. In a nothing-to-lose chase, India were now decidedly ahead; now there was something grand to lose, now the brain took over from the instinct. Now we got classic Dhoni.
Almost every time Dhoni has taken the game into the last over, he has looked to hit a big statement-making shot off the first ball of the over. It demoralises the bowler, it scares him at times. Here, Dhoni had an almighty swing at the first ball. Dwayne Bravo knew what was coming. He bowled a slower ball. Dhoni should have been caught but Marlon Samuels dropped him. You expect a bowler to make at least one mistake in such pressure situations. Bravo didn't. He took it to the last ball with India needing two.
Had Samuels not dropped him earlier, Dhoni wouldn't have been in this spotlight. Now he was. A batsman less trusting of his game would have perhaps tried the big hit with six required off four and with four required off two. Dhoni had taken his one chance, and was now going to do it his way, especially in the absence of a mistake from the bowler.
Bravo is a shrewd bowler, but it also helped him that Dhoni has become predictable in his pursuit of perfection. Bravo knew Dhoni was not going to go for the big hit and risk losing. Bravo wanted to plug gaps where twos could be taken. Dhoni's favourite area is a bunt into the leg side with a two taken to the 30-yard circle. Bravo placed a midwicket. And he let Dhoni wait.
Over several minutes Bravo had several conferences, everyone speaking with mouths covered. Dhoni was given enough time to contemplate. Time to think if he would be happy with just the Super Over after coming so far in a world-record chase. Or if he was happy to risk losing trying to seal the chase right there. Time to think of KL Rahul at the other end, who had played the innings of his life and deserved to be on the winning side.
Dhoni stuck with what Bravo expected of him, but premeditated. Bravo said he was not sure he was going to bowl the slower ball but as he saw Dhoni walk across, out came the slower ball. Dhoni wanted to gain yards by hitting on the move, ended up playing well in front of his body, and found one of the four men inside the circle. Samuels again.
This is a result-obsessed format, where even a tie is not a tie, but it is hazardous to see everything as right or wrong based on results. In an IPL game Steven Smith played a chip shot off the last ball of a Super Over to take the two required to tie the Super Over, knowing his team was ahead on the boundary count. Smith was praised unequivocally for being aware of the situation and backing himself to execute a plan. Dhoni took less of a risk here; he had less of a reward on offer: the fielders were all aware that he wasn't looking to hit a six, so they were off the boundary a little to cut off the second, knowing they held the slight edge should there be a Super Over.
A reminder that you can fail with the other approach too came two days later in Mackay, where India A needed three runs off the last two balls against Australia A. Sanju Samson, batting on 87, got a full ball from Kane Richardson - perhaps a yorker gone wrong - and looked to end the game right there. His attempt to hit a six ended in the hands of long-on, and Jayant Yadav could get only one off the last ball. India A lost by one run.
Perhaps it was Dhoni's predictability as a pragmatic batsman that allowed West Indies to have clear minds. Perhaps a younger Dhoni would have spotted the slower ball and adjusted his bat-swing; this was the second similar slower ball in the over that had drawn Dhoni's edge. Perhaps Dhoni should have surprised them by going for the bigger hit?
Yet it cannot be discounted that as a pure striker of the ball he is not the same batsman that he used to be. Since his Test retirement, with breaks available, Dhoni has come back fresher every time. Noticeably, he has begun to play the ramp shot now to make himself less predictable. He has started moving across and pulling short balls angled into his ribs, which used to leave him handcuffed a year ago. He is moving but the bowlers are arguably moving faster.
It's a tough job to consistently put yourself in pressure situations. Last year Dhoni spoke - after falling in the last over but being fortunate to see Manish Pandey finish the job in Sydney - of the unfair expectations on him in the finisher's role. A good yorker is a good yorker, he said. Yes, at the end of the day, you will be judged by the results, but for him if a finisher can win you more games than he loses - even if it is just one more - he has done well enough. In that pressure environment, you can plan all you want, but it is extremely difficult to execute that plan.
While all those around you judge you by results, you can survive either by not thinking too much or by being philosophical in your thinking. Dhoni has got the second part right. After India lost what could have been a much-celebrated chase, it didn't take him long to assess that the plan was right and the execution wrong. He wasn't going to let this bog him down in the next game. Or at least that's what he told himself.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo