Sometimes a player’s worth is magnified by virtue of his absence.
MS Dhoni was rested for the final two One-Day Internationals in the series against Australia. When India lost at Mohali – failing to defend 358 – the great Bishan Bedi wondered why they would rest their “half-captain”, a man whose calming influence could have made a difference in the climactic stages.
A piece in the Indian Express questioned Virat Kohli’s “cagey and pedantic” tactics – and contrasted it with the times he has relied on Dhoni to “tinker the field” and “conceive plans for the spinners”.
Several observers pointed to Rishabh Pant’s mis-stumping when Ashton Turner was on 38. Turner went on to pummel 84 off 43 balls, which swung the match Australia’s way.
On Wednesday, India lost the decider in Delhi. And the shadow of Dhoni loomed large during the pursuit of 273: which, given India’s chasing pattern in the last few years, can be classed as a typical “Dhoni target”.
Between April 2015 and the latest defeat, India had won 27 out of the 33 matches (One tie) when chasing a sub-280 target. Many of these wins were fashioned by their formidable top order but Dhoni played his part when the SOS went out.
In chases of 280 or less in the last four years he has three 30s, two 40s, a 54, a 59 not out, a 67 not out and an 87 not out. Only once has he fallen in single digits. There is a concern about Dhoni’s strike rate in 300-plus chases but when the target is in his wheelhouse – and when the top order shrivels¬– he is the go-to man.
Going by what his team-mates say, Dhoni’s scores are only a part of his contribution. After the first ODI of this series in Hyderabad, Kedar Jadhav had said of his unbeaten 141-run stand with Dhoni: “Every time I bat with him, I spend time with him, I learn a lot. I can’t put it into words. That’s the sort of person he is. You just see him and feel like you’ll deliver today.”
Jadhav could have been summing up Dhoni’s career when he said: “I can’t put it into words.”
Dhoni the batsman has been subjected to a glut of analysis in the last few months. Numbers tell us that Dhoni is not as good as he was earlier but that he is still very good in certain situations. Dhoni the wicketkeeper and Dhoni the tactician, though, have been woefully let down by the stats.
There is no metric to compare Dhoni’s wicketkeeping in the first three ODIs with Pant’s in the last two. We can count dropped chances and run-outs effected but that is as far as we can get. We don’t have access to reaction times for stumping attempts, or the number of fumbles when collecting throws. We don’t know how many times batsmen jumped out of the crease when each was keeping wicket.
Added to this are Dhoni’s intangible qualities on the field – especially in the later overs when Kohli fields on the boundary – and we are left with a cricketer whose value is hard to pin down.
What we have to make do with are the gif-able, meme-able moments: deflecting the ball off his gloves to run-out Glenn Maxwell; anticipating a lap-sweep and getting his hands on a chance from Peter Handscomb at leg slip; tipping off Kuldeep Yadav on what a batsman is likely to do next ball; saving himself from getting stumped by doing a near-split, stretching his feet a scarcely believable 2.14 metres apart.
And all these just over the last few months. Amplify that thousand-fold – going way back to when he asked Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over in the World T20 final, to smashing Shoaib Akhtar in a Test in Faisalabad, to launching a six in the vicinity of a selector when he wasn’t picked for a U-19 World Cup camp…and you straddle the line between a cricketing star and a mythical hero.
For ardent fans who have embraced this outsized image of Dhoni, it is hard to see him doing any wrong. Yes, he doesn’t hit as many sixes as before but aren’t there other batsmen to do just that? And what makes you think he can’t hit sixes as and when he chooses? What if his strike-rate is not that high? You need him to stay till the end to give his partners the confidence to accelerate. What if he doesn’t explode at the end of the first innings? Would you rather the team folds in the 45th over? Numbers and analysis and all are fine, but are you mad enough to bet against Dhoni?
Which is the nub of the matter, really. The devotion that Dhoni evokes is underpinned by the dizzy hope he arouses. This in turn is anchored in the incredible chases and unlikely victories that he has engineered– both as captain and batsman.
Most cricketers touching 38 have their reflexes slowing and speed diminished. Dhoni still pulls off lighting stumpings. Many ageing stars struggle to cope with the athletic demands of the shorter formats. Dhoni is still acing Yo-Yo tests. His form in 2018 suggested he was a cricketer on the wane. Then, just like a classic Dhoni innings, battling the odds, he started the new year with a mighty blast of hope.
It is now a given that he will play the World Cup. But perhaps there was never any doubt. To fall short of the big prize with Dhoni in the XI seems much more palatable than to do so without him. And to triumph with Dhoni playing a part seems so much grander than to win without him.