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Clock ticking on Dhoni, the T20 finisher

VVS Laxman's recent remarks concerning the future of MS Dhoni reveal the extent to which Dhoni's T20 powers have been on the wane since 2016

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
When VVS Laxman, well renowned for his optimism as a player and a pundit, practically asks an India legend to retire, while representing the host broadcaster no less, it must have got really bad for that player. When the said player is MS "Nothing to add" Dhoni, it has to be a matter of serious concern that even the friendliest of people are tapping him on the shoulder, suggesting he "give youngsters a chance". That Laxman's other colleagues on the host broadcaster were equally critical of Dhoni might just suggest the end of the protection that comes with almost all former players controlled by the BCCI and the host broadcaster.
The latest of Dhoni's innings to go against him came in the Rajkot T20I where India were chasing 197 on a flat pitch. Dhoni got completely stuck during his partnership with a rampaging Virat Kohli. A two-minute clip on the host webcaster's site identifies Kohli being denied the strike by other batsmen as one of the three reasons for India's defeat. Before falling to an ambitious shot, Kohli faced 42 of the 87 balls while he was at the crease, which is not too lopsided a share. But when you look at it closely, one man denied him strike: Dhoni faced 24 balls for 25 runs in their 44-ball partnership.
Dhoni's eventual score of 49 off 37 balls can be used as an argument that he is being unfairly targeted for a defeat in which at least three catches went down and specialist batsmen other than Dhoni and Kohli offered just 30 runs to the team. However, 24 of those 49 runs came after the match was dead. When the game was alive, with Kohli still there and the hope of chasing a high asking rate still aloft, Dhoni went at a strike rate of barely 100, which is what Laxman highlighted in his analysis.
"In T20s, MS Dhoni's role is at No. 4. He requires more time to get his eye in and then do the job. But today [Rajkot] was a classic example because when Virat Kohli was batting, Dhoni had to give strike to Kohli. Kohli's strike rate was 160, MS Dhoni's strike rate was 80. That's not good enough when India were chasing a mammoth total."
"In Dhoni's authorised biopic, he is seen convincing the selectors to drop 'three' legends from the ODI side because their slowness in the field didn't help build pressure on the opposition. Clearly Kohli doesn't yet feel that Dhoni's struggles in T20 cricket are putting undue pressure on others."
India would have probably lost this match anyway - counting Hardik Pandya, India had played only six batsmen, and when Dhoni walked out, India needed to sustain two runs per ball for more than 10 overs - but it was his sheer helplessness on a flat deck that stood out. He hit the odd big hit, but played out nine dot balls out of his first 25. Six of those dots came against spin.
Had this been a one-off, it would have been unfair vilification. In fact this innings was a microcosm of Dhoni's troubles over the last two years: since the start of 2016, in all T20 cricket, Dhoni has managed to take only 6.87 runs per over off spin in the last 10 overs of an innings. Close to 46% of the spin he has faced in the last 10 overs over this period has gone unscored against. Sometimes, with big-hitting batsmen such as Andre Russell, dot balls can be over-rated as they make up for them with boundaries, but Dhoni is a more clinical batsman who takes fewer risks, and he has not been able to hit a boundary every 10 balls of spin in the last 10 overs since January 2016.
It's not because of lack of trying, though. Dhoni has recently changed his technique, introducing a shuffle to possibly access the wide balls that the quicks used against him or to counter pace. He has started pulling the trigger earlier than he used to; he no longer waits for the fabled last over. Yet because he is neither a big slogger nor a 360-degrees batsman, bowlers have too many options to keep him quiet nowadays. In the Rajkot T20I, he tried to hit early; yet in 18 balls of spin, he played out seven dots and hit two boundaries, which is quite consistent with his troubles over the last two years. As Laxman said, not good enough when your primary job in the team is to bat those last 10 overs.
Unwittingly, Laxman has once again laid bare the system by urging Dhoni to take a call and not the selectors. When Laxman retired, after a poor Australia tour, he did so himself when he could have easily continued for a farewell series in India and might well have scored big runs. It is unfair on a player, but it is also the inconvenient truth of Indian cricket.
Moments after India lost the 2015 World Cup semi-final, Dhoni practically selected himself for the 2016 World T20 by saying he will take a call on retirement after said event. Recently Ashish Nehra selected himself for the Delhi T20I by announcing it was his farewell game when the chairman of selectors had himself said that Nehra was not in their long-term plans.
When it comes to legends in Indian cricket, it is usually down to the captains and the said legends. The current captain Kohli backs Dhoni, a hero and a mentor to him, a captain who backed him during the nascent stages of his career. Dhoni is also the sounding board who almost allows Kohli to not captain his side in the crunch moments. In the final overs of ODIs and T20Is, Dhoni might as well be the captain as it is he who sets the fields and talks to the bowlers while Kohli fields in the deep.
This might work for Kohli in ODIs because the 50-overs format still gives Dhoni some of the time he needs to get into his innings before he can start hitting, but T20s can be lost in the eight balls you take to get yourself in, especially when you bat in the position that Dhoni does. Even in ODIs, Dhoni is consistently under pressure to keep up with the modern scoring rates on flat pitches - all his recent commendable efforts have come in low-scoring ODIs, and even in those he failed to win India the recent Antigua ODI - but in T20s he might just be putting too much pressure on his colleagues.
In Dhoni's authorised biopic, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, as a young captain in 2007-08, he is seen convincing the selectors to drop "three" legends from the ODI side. He reasons that their slowness in the field didn't allow them to build pressure on the opposition because they can keep rotating the strike, which in turn puts too much pressure on the others. Clearly Kohli doesn't yet feel that Dhoni's struggles in T20 cricket are putting undue pressure on others. He feels Dhoni is being targeted just because of his age.
Perhaps being too close to the action, Kohli fails to see what the fuss is all about. India are yet to lose a bilateral limited-overs series under him. Since the ODI series in Australia at the start of the last year, India have lost just eight out of 34 ODIs and nine out of 21 T20Is. In all but five of these defeats, India have been done in by a really flat pitch that renders their bowlers ineffective or a Dhoni slowdown. Or a combination of both as in Rajkot last week or Mumbai last month or Florida last year. Some of their bowling troubles were down to the absence of wristspinners, which they addressed post Champions Trophy. It can't be too long before they at least confront the Dhoni issue even if they continue with him for want of worthy alternatives.
That every defeat is so microscopically analysed is not vilification of the team but a testament to its potential now that it has put together a set of bowlers who can dominate limited-overs cricket.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo