How MS Dhoni showed he's back to his best
The fresh breeze around MS Dhoni is reminiscent of his vintage self. He is finishing games again and leading from the front. What changed?
“My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”
For those archaic sapiens who are unaware of Forrest Gump, this philosophical analogy between life and a box of chocolates is not the product of Dhoni's satirical press conferences. Yet if we scrupulously observe the analogy, MS Dhoni in the past few years has not been very different from that box of chocolates -- you never know what awaits.
Not that he isn’t scoring runs or is out of form. There’s nothing like form in Dhoni’s cricketing tome — It’s all in the state of mind. From a number’s perspective, his average still hovers around the mid-40s after the 2015 World Cup. That’s more than decent for a middle-order batsman in the most iconic of teams.
But Dhoni was never about his numbers. Neither about those imperious drives. The talk always meandered about how he finishes the games. This was synecdoche to his form and career.
His methodical disintegration of the target was so immaculate and impeccable that we never really bothered how he kick-started his innings in the first place; it revolved around working out a way to set up one to one face-off with the bowler, like a master strategist wooing his target out of their area of domination.
Then he would pounce on them like a hungry Lion. The script would be telegraphed loud and clear, but the real sorcery lied in the unfolding of the denouement: The cardiac theatrics of MS Dhoni.
It's an onerous task to be consistent at the international level. More so, if you are a finisher. There are enough numbers and parameters to vindicate the same. Thus, the dip was always on the cards. This is what MS Dhoni said about his modus operandi after the World Cup 2011 warmup game against New Zealand:
"My game is a bit different. I like spending initial few minutes or deliveries to get into the groove and then get on going. Most of my good innings have been when I have started rotating initially and after that stay till the end for the slog overs."
Singles and doubles served as the bricks for his monumental match-winning efforts. It was his way of knitting the web around the opposition and warm himself up for the death overs. That evident from his T-20 strike rates too.
Dhoni’s strike rate in T20s before 2015:
First 5 balls —106
After 10 balls—122
Captains would bring in extra fielders in the ring as soon as Dhoni arrived at the crease, just to plug those gaps and stifle his inning. He would respond by smashing a boundary which would set Captains back to defence. This changed post-2015.
Dhoni’s strike rate after 2015:
First 5 balls— 76
After 10 balls—97
Singles dried up and dot-ball percentage crept up as a result. Unlike previously for Dhoni, it was now too perilous to go after the bowlers from the onset. This was also the time when the Indian team was grappling with the middle order conundrum.
The fringe middle order further impeded him from going after the bowlers. The strategy to bring in extra fielder proved effective. The mental calculator developed a glitch, and Dhoni’s tryst with the run chases grew sour with each passing games.
Another inevitable and important factor is the age. As ironical as it sounds in Dhoni’s case, age does take a toll on your reflexes. Quick balls fired at his ribs became Rabada’s go-to ball in the death overs against Dhoni during South Africa’s 2016 visit to India.
Wide yorkers suddenly started trending and Dhoni was forced to come up with some sort of counter-strategies. Trigger movement was one of them along with the replacement of his pads with the new widely used ones.
But the experiment didn’t last for too long and Dhoni went back to his traditional and trusted methods. And talks of “the 35-year-old Dhoni and 25-year-old Dhoni” became rife.
Come IPL 2018, the new Avatar of Dhoni has swayed away his critics, at least for the time being, with this 2nd wind. CSK is back after a two-year hiatus and so is it’s Thala-MS Dhoni. He is finishing games again, leading his side from the front and muscling boundaries like his vintage self.
It has bestowed Dhoni with much-needed breathing space. What did he tweak? He incorporated into his game, which he has been vocal about for so long. He stopped putting too much brain into a T20 inning.
IPL 2018 - CSK vs RR, 17th match
Batting first CSK had coasted through to 150 for two after 13 overs. Dhoni was on 5 of two balls. He could have nudged the next one for a single and warmed up for the end overs carnage. He could have easily played out few dot balls and no one would have batted an eye. What did he do instead?
He came dancing down the track to S Gopal’s googly and attempted a slog over long on! He perished in the process, but it gave an insight into what Dhoni was planning. It gave an insight into Dhoni’s remodelled template of building a T20 inning.
"Clashes to Clashes, Last to First.
If Pull don’t get you, Helicopter must!"
It wasn’t immediate though.
After being deceived by the rookie leg-spinner Mayank Markande’s googly in the opening game, Dhoni again found himself strangled in the middle, unable to rotate the strike against KKR’s unerring spinners. When he came out to bat, the required run rate was around 10.50. It had crept up to 14 when he got out.
Sometimes when the clearest of minds get smudged by vulnerabilities, a mistake could shovel you back on the path. That drop catch by Mayank Dagar at deep midwicket off Mohit Sharma’s full toss flicked the switch for MS.
CSK lost the game by a slender margin of 4 runs but it rekindled the fire and showed everyone, not least to Dhoni himself that he can still do that ‘dirty job’ of finishing the games.
One can argue that it’s IPL and not International cricket where there are obvious weak links in each bowling attack, unlike top International teams. But still, you have to pick and target them.
You still have to time your slog and set aside your ego of hitting sixes at will. In his pomp, Dhoni was the master of this art. In his twilight, he has somehow reinvented the mojo again. His previous best aggregation after 10 IPL games was 332, that was way back in its inaugural season.
In IPL 2018, he has already piled on 360 runs at a staggering average of 90 and an impressive strike rate of 165.89. Phew!
It’s serendipitous for the game lovers. It’s ominous for those bowling to him. And it’s agonizing for the opposing captains. Thus if you are a teetotaler and his fine wine like aging proved to be an unsavory experience, here’s a sweet little popping candy version of MS Dhoni for you straight out of Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.
Don't chew, Don't spit. Just let the pyrotechnics take you over. Welcome back MS, it was about time.