Virat Kohli had his hands on his knees. MS Dhoni walked towards him, en route the pavilion, his teeth clenched in frustration.
Kohli looked up, after Dhoni had taken a step past him. He still could not muster the courage to look India’s limited-overs skipper in the eye. But he tapped Dhoni on the back. The gesture was his way of telling Dhoni that he had been playing well, and that he did not deserve to go head back to the pavilion.
But with India 29 runs away from a comfortable victory over New Zealand in Dharamsala, Dhoni had been run out. His dismissal was not likely to hand New Zealand a backdoor entry into the first ODI. But a man who at one point was one of the finest finishers of cricket games in the world had not managed to finish off a game that had been presented to India on a platter.
The Mitchell Santner delivery had deflected off Dhoni’s pad after he failed to connect an on-side flick. The ball rolled towards a charging Martin Guptill at cover. The run was always a challenge, if not non-existent. Dhoni called, Kohli responded.
But after taking the first two strides, the vice-captain realised that he could not have completed the run. He apprised Dhoni of the danger that stared him in the face, and asked Dhoni to return. But it was too late by then, the Indian captain was now running into a dead end.
After Dhoni walked past Kohli on his way back to the pavilion, the latter smacked his pad with the bat in annoyance. Because India had lost an unnecessary wicket. And because the Men in Blue would fail to see the game off flawlessly. It may have been an unfortunate mode of dismissal for Dhoni, but the misjudgement was born the minute Dhoni called for a run that was not meant to be.
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
Dhoni’s fall may not have had catastrophic effects on Sunday. But India’s struggle to finish ODIs and to find a batsman capable of delivering the knockout blow has been a problem that has plagued the team for a while.
Even in the first Twenty20 International at Lauderhill against the West Indies in August, India failed to garner eight off the last over. They had Lokesh Rahul, who had scored a century already, and a settled Dhoni at the crease, facing up to Dwayne Bravo’s medium pace. You would expect a batsman with 100 to his name to do better. And you would definitely expect MS Dhoni to finish off the game, any game.
But India fell short by a run, after Dhoni scooped the ball right into the hands of short third man. The second T20I would be washed out, and the result would award West Indies the series.
The result of the ODI series against South Africa at home last year too could have gone in India’s favour. Again with Dhoni at the crease, India needed 11 off Kagiso Rabada, who was to bowl the last over. Dhoni on a flat Kanpur deck against a rookie pacer. The odds were stacked in favour of the Indian captain. But he skied a catch back to the bowler. India lost the game by five runs, and eventually the series, 2-3.
No company for Dhoni at the death
The problem is not with Dhoni alone, though. He has played knocks, chasing down impossible-looking totals, which have places reserved in the folklore of Indian cricket. The unbeaten 183 to overhaul Sri Lanka’s 298 in Jaipur in 2005, or the unbeaten 91 to help India win the 2011 World Cup by overcoming Sri Lanka’s 274, are innings that made India one of the best chasing outfits over the last decade.
In the years between 2005 and 2011, and even after that, MS Dhoni was one of the best in the business when it came to launching death-over assaults. But then, during that period, the Indian captain also had the company of a feared Yuvraj Singh and a flamboyant Suresh Raina. But Yuvraj has lost his place and Raina, the certainty of his spot. Suddenly, there is a dearth of dependably consistent power-hitters at the end.
And that is the problem.
The scenario has left Dhoni to balance the finisher’s role with that of a senior batsman, who must play responsible knocks in the middle order. And in that attempt to find the balance, he has lost his natural attacking self somewhere.
Often, Dhoni has spoken of how the current batting line-up does not allow him to come higher up the order or play freely. Ahead of Sunday’s game against the Kiwis, he explained the challenge the Indian team faces in scouting for the perfect finisher as of now. “It is one of the most difficult things to do in cricket,” he explained. “Once you find a good finisher, they are the ones that keep batting at that slot for eight to 10 years.”
The search is on (we hope)
The skipper is right. India had that phase with first Yuvraj and later Raina. But that is a phase that is nowhere on the horizon right now. Who could be that man at number five, six or seven whom the opponents shudder at the sight of?
Kedar Jadhav is 31, and is yet to showcase his big-hitting prowess at the international level. Ravindra Jadeja could have staked a claim, but he has not yet come to terms with his batting talent in Indian colours. Hardik Pandya, perhaps, has a shot at it. But considering he has just played his first ODI on Sunday, and a handful of T20s before that, it's a long haul.
The strongest one-day teams have players who can bludgeon attacks in the latter half of the innings. Australia has a Glenn Maxwell and a James Faulkner. Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes do the job for England. David Miller and JP Duminy can play that role for South Africa. Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi are the designated finishers in the New Zealand outfit.
India is in the queue to be the best, but if they must earn an entry into the elite group – even win matches and tournaments overseas – they need someone to hand the opponents the shock treatment at the death. To hit them when they least expect it. And, to triumph in games they were never meant to.
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