Friday, July 12, 2013

The Dhoni Effect

On March 1, 2003, India chased 274 to win against Pakistan in a crucial World Cup league game at Centurion. I was watching at home in Bombay. After Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed by a Shoaib Akhtar snorter for 98, with 97 required for victory, I paced up and down in front of the TV, counting down every single run. When there were 85 required, I told myself that the match would be safer once the target was in the 60s. When it was in the 60s, I prayed for it to be down to the 40s with Dravid and Yuvraj still in. Wasim Akram cut Yuvraj Singh in half with one of his special off breaks at 90 miles an hour, and Yuvraj responded by flaying at the next ball, on the rise. He connected with the middle of his bat even though his footwork was so late and the the timing so good that the ball had nearly reached the gap in the infield by the time Yuvraj's front foot came down. I couldn't watch that next ball live, I watched it on the replay. That Yuvraj had middled it despite being in no position to do so seemed to me to be an omen. It would be India's match. Even when there were only about 8 to get, I was still worried that things could go wrong.

That, for most of my life, is what it has been like watching India chase. The record India have built does not merit this skepticism, but there it is. I believe India can win from the most hopeless positions. I also believe that they will find a way to lose from the most dominant positions. I believe in India the most when they are down, and the least when they are about to win.

Things have changed. Maybe it is because I have gotten older. Maybe it is because India do win way more these days than they used to back in the days of Sourav Ganguly and Debashish Mohanty.

I'll confess something here. When India were chasing in the World Cup Final, I wasn't worried. Not even when Tendulkar fell to Malinga making it 31/2. I knew it was a question of a couple of decent stands. What's more I was reasonably confident those stands would come. It was an eery feeling. To know, on the morning of a World Cup Final, that your team was going to win simply because it was better and because it would play better than the opposition.

I felt it again today, watching the last 10 overs of a final I hadn't planned on watching at all. I kept an eye on the score off and on for the first half of India's chase. When I checked back, India were 8 down, still 40 away. Cricinfo's headline said "Dhoni India's last hope". I've been thinking about how I felt when I saw that headline. It should have worried me. It would have 10 years ago. It would have even with Tendulkar batting. 8 down, lost 4 very quick wickets, collapsing, tricky pitch, momentum with the opposition, big final, trouble.

It didn't.

That, I've come to the conclusion, is the M S Dhoni effect. India have other fine batsmen. They have other gifted stroke makers who can score at any pace. They have players who on their day, can do anything against any opponent.

There is, in each cricket fan, a core belief. Deep down. Far below rationality and intellectual honesty, deeper down than the gut even. We know what our team is capable of. The facts have something to do with it, but at the same time, they don't. When India concede a 200 run first innings lead, And Dravid and Tendulkar are batting together with the score on 35/2, I dream of a double hundred stand. But deep down I know its more likely to be three hours of extremely hard graft against a bowling attack which is trying their hardest, at their very best concentration. Deep down, I've always known that it was a miracle too far.

In ODI cricket, while Dhoni is still to have his say, at that very core of my being as an Indian fan, I harbor only total confidence that the thing can be done.

That is the Dhoni effect.

I have never seen a player so infallible at such violence. Has Dhoni ever played a shot in anger? Even when he takes a chance, it is surgically chosen. It has taken a while, but Dhoni's India is like no other.

M S Dhoni first made his name in the Indian uniform in 2005. India were playing Sri Lanka at Jaipur. The visitors had made 300. They had gone 5 years without losing a game defending 250 with Muralitharan in their ranks or more upto that point. Dhoni looked and batted like a great protagonist of the theatre might appear to people who never went to the theatre. There was a distance in the dramatic flourish of his follow through. His bat would reach out, arms fully stretched out, as though he had once been punished for not following through properly, and since learnt never to do so by half measures. He made 183 in 145 balls. In the next game at Pune, India had fallen to 180/6 chasing 262. They needed 82 in 15 overs. Dhoni made 45 not out in 43 balls. He made 17 from his first 33, and 28 off his last 10. It was a chase crafted with a sophistication seen only from India's (and the world's) very best batsmen.

Since then, the hairstyle has changed, but the precocious ability to judge a run chase hasn't. In 96 innings batting second (in 116 matches), Dhoni has remained undefeated 35 times. India have won 33, lost 1, and tied 1. In those 35 innings Dhoni has made 1612 unanswered runs at a strike rate of 91. In Dhoni's 116 games batting second, India have won 72 and lost 41. When Dhoni hasn't been around at the finish, India have won 39, and lost 40.

How does he do it? He's offered many explanations. They are usually pithy. He once spoke of trying to reduce the heart rate - trying to calm the chase down before launching a blistering assault in the last 3-4 overs. Today, his analysis was disarmingly simple. 10 overs out, he had worked out how Sri Lanka would distribute their overs, which bowler he wanted to keep the other players away from, and who would deliver his runs. The "inexperienced" bowler was the one he would take his chances against. His ability to hit boundaries to order is perhaps unrivalled in Cricket since Viv Richards. I dare say that he is perhaps the greatest middle order ODI batsman since the great Antiguan. But more than his individual skills and talents - hitting the ball hard and clean and long in most directions, reading games, picking bowlers - it is his mastery of his own cricketing person that is breathtaking. He never seems to make any sudden moves. Never does he seem to react off balance. On the limited overs cricket field, reality seems to come upon Dhoni after he has already figured it out.

This is perhaps why he instills this deep core confidence in me. I know his batting technique is limited. But I also know that he knows this too, perhaps better than anyone else. The basis of the Dhoni effect is the Indian captain's almost yogic command of his own actions. Ian Chappell used to speak of Sachin Tendulkar's "peripheral awareness" - the ability to read situations and make those readings count by keeping him (Tendulkar) two steps ahead of the opposition. Dhoni has this same quality in ample measure. Unlike Tendulkar, he also has, in large part thanks to Tendulkar, a gifted team. He is able to sit back in the lower order and finish things off when the others don't. But he is not shy of moving up and taking charge.

Knowing that Dhoni plays for India gives me some insight into what it must have been like to be an Australian cricket fan and know that McGrath and Warne were going to bowl for your team.

It is a privilege to experience something like that. It is a privilege to watch MS Dhoni play cricket.

6 comments:

  1. LOL, I wrote a post with the same title as this some time back! There's definitely a reason why countless cricketers and fans say "India are lucky to have Dhoni". Just the ability to absorb the pressure and be "in the zone" from ball 1, along with finishing things off in style, makes him a special cricketer. The V.V.S. Laxman of ODIs? Or rather, Dhoni has become a noun now, a term for finishing off things coolly in style, that there's no comparison.

    Cheers,
    Sai Ram

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  2. I do feel these last over finishes have clouded our sense of judgement and make us forget how the contribution of the rest of the indian batsmen have largely been forgotten. One doesn't have to a good finisher, a performer of miracles only if he takes the finish to the last over and completes it.Dhoni has done it twice now,tied once and failed at times too but does that mean the chases orchestrated by say a Yuvraj(along with dhoni at times)who completes it well before aren't that special?.

    You talk about the 2003 Quarterfinal and how dhoni's arrival changed the fortunes which might be right on statistical terms but then it also marked the peak in Yuvraj's ODI career,the entry of a new generation of batsmen like kohli,gambhir towards the late decade who started bringing in a consistent streak to their crunch game performances.

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  3. Dhoni's record in chases is well documented but when split it shows a great bias towards massive averages against Pakistan and Srilanka while coming down to earth against non-asian teams. This is not to mention the home away gap but to assert that he has also failed many a times in big games too.Save for the WC final,he has nothing to show off in ICC 50 over events.

    Praising dhoni sky high for 'cricketing acumen' is all fine but the glamour of last over finishes have made people overlook the contribution of the rest of indian batsmen(worse is the case with your article about a reference to an event way back in 2003 when India had a horror run in finals).

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  4. Dhoni might be limited as a test batsman but don't remember any cricketer in history possesing the gifts that a middle order finisher should have.Coolness under pressure,lightning fast running btw wickets,ability to clear the ropes at will and someone who smothers spin under the restrictions in ODI's.Bevan lacked in some but made up in superior handling of pace bowling.

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  5. After this match, I can't help remembering the first cricket match I watched fully: the India-SL WC semifinal in 96. I was 8 years old back then & I was watching it with my father & grandfather. I remember their confidence in Sachin & their fear when he got out. It later turned to anger & disgust as the rest of the team crumbled under that pressure. So many things I remember - the angry eden gardens crowd, the tears on Kambli's face. How things have changed now !!
    For those of us following cricket from the 90s, Dhoni is the cricketer we always wanted. Cool, calculating & with power to spare.

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  6. A lot of people have commented on the last over finish but they dont read beyond what meets the eye. Dhoni wasn't waiting only for the last over, he was waiting for Eranga's over. Though a lot might diagree, but Dhoni is not a punter. He doesnt like to take chances. He plays the game where he is most likely to win. He could have taken on a Malinga or Mathews and he is good enough to take anyone. As a matter of fact, no one plays them better than MS, with Kohli not too far behind. But he knew that it would be easier to go after Eranga. And so he delays the attack, and that requires some amount of self-confidence. Yuvi can never even come close to MS when it comes to finishing. I pray every ball when Yuvraj bats, and its not really about the technique or ability, its just about that attitude.

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