The intent at the start of the innings is exactly what has been refreshing about Dhoni’s phenomenal form in IPL 2018 © AFP
Superstars in Indian cinema find it hard as they start to age. The dilemma they have is regarding their approach towards selecting films. Do they go with the method that gave them stardom all these years or do they try to reinvent themselves to be on terms with the era’s progress? Being a star cricketer is no different, at least in India where cinema and cricket are more like religion. Subsequently, the idols in the respective fields are nothing less than demi-gods. And MS Dhoni is one of those.
Throughout his career, Dhoni had dared to be different – a major reason for his success as captain. Much like his captaincy, even his batting approach did baffle the purists before the relentless success made that a trademark ‘Dhoni template’.
However, after all the success that an international cricketer or captain could possibly wish for, Dhoni’s reputation as a finisher started to take a hit from late 2015 onwards. That was when Kagiso Rabada managed to defend 11 off the final over with him at the crease – in Kanpur. It was the start of quite a few similar incidents, albeit mostly in T20Is. The ones against Zimbabwe and West Indies in 2016, where he failed with just eight needed off the final over, dented his reputation, as did his perennially slow ODI fifty in the Caribbean in 2017 where, again, his template of taking the game deep didn’t quite work. While many believed that it was a Dhoni method past its expiration date, the man certainly chose to look at it differently.
Dhoni’s pressure-release shots have almost always been straight down the ground into the sight-screen and in the arc between long-on and deep mid-wicket. What Rabada did was to take pace off the ball and bowl into the body so as to cramp Dhoni for room. The success of the South African saw many bowlers across the world lap it up. The other plan was the wide yorker. Throughout 2016 and the early part of 2017, Dhoni struggled when it came to finishing the innings as well as he had done in the past. He was left needing a spark of reinvention because the monotony of his game had reached its saturation point.
It was during IPL 2017 that Dhoni incorporated some minor tweaks in his technique, trying to get a more upright stance to extend his range. He put it on trial during the tournament and although the results weren’t outstanding, there were certainly glimpses of a possible change. His best two knocks of the season described this point really well. Against the Sunrisers in a tense chase Dhoni’s go-to shots under pressure, apart from his usual ones, were over long-off and extra cover while also going aerial over backward point. These were never known to be his boundary zones, but there had clearly been some work done. The ones over long-off and deep cover reappeared in the first Qualifier as well when he took the likes of Mitchell McClenaghan and Jasprit Bumrah apart.
2017 was a fine one for Dhoni in ODIs. However, there was one thing that was surprising to people. While runs did flow, it came in a more grafted fashion than it ever had in his career. This quality did come about mostly due to the situation demanding it, like it did throughout the series in Sri Lanka. But at times, like on the tour to West Indies, it seemed as if he was using up too many deliveries upfront to get going. Rotation of strike – a quality that Dhoni owned effortlessly over the years – was starting to desert him. The drop in strike-rates was staggering – it was just over 80 in both 2016 and 2017 as opposed to his career strike rate of 88.4. Dhoni’s work on improving his range of shots, which he did by also bringing in a shuffle across, was slowly coming up but the mindset had to change as well.
The intent at the start of the innings is exactly what has been refreshing about Dhoni’s phenomenal form in IPL 2018. The first two games seemed to have a deja vu effect of the previous seasons but that changed from the KXIP game in Mohali. Battling a sore back, he came out all guns blazing at the end and although CSK fell short by a whisker, that knock (also his highest IPL score) gave him the confidence boost. Confidence in sport is priceless and it can come from any leap-of-faith moments. For Dhoni, that came in Mohali. The injury had virtually clipped off his running between the wickets that he dotes on so much and he was left with no choice towards the end but try just the big shots. And in doing so, he was able to rediscover himself all over again. The ball-striking that night was almost as good as it has ever been in his career.
Since the Mohali encounter, Dhoni hasn’t put a foot wrong. If people thought it was a one-off, the Bengaluru epic was still to come. And it was an innings that would prove that he had actually revamped himself without losing his identity as a finisher. Often in a run chase, irrespective of how big it is, Dhoni has started off looking for just singles without trying anything big till he was actually set. This was a ploy that had started to backfire as well. That night at the Chinnaswamy, he launched Pawan Negi, off just the second ball he faced, into the stands at long-on. He was severe on the left-arm spinner when he came on later as well. While Dhoni continued his mantra of focusing on the weak links in the attack and playing out the better bowlers, the plan wasn’t a predetermined one as it used to be in the past. Over the next few games, he has been comfortable with launching the ball from the word go.
It speaks of a man who is now back to his peak in terms of confidence and mental space. Bowlers in this IPL aren’t quite sure where to bowl to Dhoni. The wide yorker might still be a reasonable option but as Mohammad Siraj found out, it can actually disappear via a slice over backward point for a six. The off-side game has gone through a revamp. He now uses his feet to target wide long-off and deep cover a lot more than he used to in his prime. The flat-batted stroke has become frequent, as has the dab or cut through backward point whenever the pacers have tried going short with/without change in pace. All this has compounded the thought processes of bowlers and that’s why inevitably, they end up bowling in his arc. At times, he even premeditates the wider length and is already up there with a shuffle across the stumps, as he was during that finishing blow at the Chinnaswamy.
There’s everything right about Dhoni this IPL. His newish stance has settled in, the range of shots has improved and while he still has that template of taking the game deep, the amount of calculated risks early on have increased as well. Dhoni’s middle-overs strike-rate (in overs 7-15) was the worst for a batsman in the IPL (minimum 250 balls faced) since 2013 at 97.92. This season, since the KXIP game in Mohali, he goes at 115.7 which a big jump. Another factor has been his improved attacking instincts against spinners. The slow bowlers have been successful in tying down Dhoni over the last two IPL seasons. Remember the attacking fields set by Gautam Gambhir for KKR? His strike-rate against spin was a lukewarm 107.69 in 2016 and a shockingly low 84.34 last year. This year, that has zoomed up to 125.6 with the odd lofted stroke coming straightaway to unsettle the bowlers.
All this has meant that Dhoni’s dot ball percentage has gone down considerably in comparison to the last few years. The calculated risk early on has meant that the field cannot be up for him. These tweaks to his game have coupled with Dhoni getting back his mojo in ball-striking. He is hitting them as cleanly as he ever did. Possibly the best he ever has because the range has widened. This is the most sixes he has ever hit in an IPL and he still has at least four games left. At the end of Match 41, he continues to top the list of most sixes hit in the season. And the finishing? Well, he goes at a stupendous strike-rate of 222.85 in the death overs.
It’s great to see Dhoni adapt to the way the game is played without compromising on his core methods as a player. The great Muhammad Ali once famously said “Don’t count the days, make the days count” and Dhoni is certainly determined to make them count.