indian cricket

Numbers don’t lie: It’s pointless to do a ‘then vs now’ comparison for MS Dhoni

There are clear indications that some aspects of his game, which don’t always receive a lot of attention, have actually improved.

For almost two years, Indian cricket has faced a burning question: will MS Dhoni be able to play the 2019 World Cup? He’s certainly fit enough, and brings immense value to the team as a wicket-keeper and a leader. Even after having stepped down from captaincy, Dhoni continues to be a leading figure on the field, using his sharp cricketing brain and wealth of experience to help Virat Kohli out with field placements, giving constructive advice to young bowlers, and being the only one standing between team India and poor usage of DRS.

But let’s face it, these are not enough to guarantee anyone a place in the team in a country like India, which has an abundance of talent. Dhoni must justify his place in the team with his bat. Since the 2015 World Cup, there have been question marks on many aspects of his game that have been his biggest strengths for most of his career. However, these question marks are sometimes based on flawed analyses.

The problem with analysing a player’s dip in form is that one tends to only look at areas that used to be the player’s strengths, but aren’t anymore. In the case of Dhoni, this means that his numbers in chases will come under heavy scrutiny, while other aspects of his game might be ignored, simply because they don’t fit the narrative of his dip in form.

Another problem in analysing such numbers can be comparing Dhoni’s numbers in the last two years to his career numbers before then. Firstly, a comparison of numbers in the final phase of his career with those in his heyday isn’t fair. Secondly, the change of rules regarding the number of fielders allowed outside the circle in ODIs, which came into effect from October 31, 2012, has changed the game drastically, and comparing player statistics from before and after this date will not be fair.

So, to avoid such fallacies, we will look at Dhoni’s statistics in two periods – from October 31, 2012, to the end of the 2015 World Cup, and the period after that. First, let’s look at the numbers that support the popular view that the former Indian captain is no longer a good finisher.

As the first three figures clearly indicate, Dhoni has simply not been as effective in chases as he used to be. The fourth reveals a dip in consistency. The fifth one indicates that Dhoni is not seeing the team through to the end. However, this figure isn’t the most reliable, as Dhoni has moved up the order after the 2015 World Cup and, therefore, does not have too many opportunities to stay unbeaten.

However, there are some numbers that do not indicate a rough patch for Dhoni. On the contrary, they actually show you ways in which he’s become better.

Of course, the rise in the first three figures isn’t as high as the dip in the previous graph, but it’s worth noting. Dhoni has definitely become better while batting first. While there is a problem with giving more weightage to a player’s performances in wins than in losses (as we’ll learn shortly), the fact is that it happens in mainstream cricket analysis. Since we always look at Dhoni’s numbers in successful chases as a mark of his chasing prowess, we must also look at how his average and runs per innings in wins have spiked in the last two years.

Now, let’s look at a graph that somewhat brings things to a more neutral position after the two opposing graphs above.

As far as runs per innings are concerned, there is very little difference in how Dhoni fared before the 2015 World Cup and after. It could, however, be argued that, batting higher up the order, he should score more runs per innings now than he was doing earlier.

The remaining figures are the most revealing ones when seen in tandem. While chasing, it is natural that if your top order has done so well that your No 6 batsman does not have to come in, you’ll win all your matches. And if your middle and lower order is being tested, your win percentage comes down. Which is why between 2012 and 2015, India only saw success in 42 percent of the chases when Dhoni came in to bat.

However, the contradiction is that Dhoni scored only 33 runs per innings in these successful chases. An even deeper analysis would reveal that out of the eight times this happened, Dhoni played a match-winning innings thrice. The first was against Sri Lanka in the final of the 2013 tri-series in West Indies. The second and third were against West Indies and Zimbabwe in the World Cup, respectively. However, in the remaining five innings, Dhoni cannot really be credited for India’s win, even though he was unbeaten in four of them.

This brings us back to the problem with looking at averages of middle-order batsmen in wins as a measure of their prowess. Dhoni averages 265 in these eight successful chases between 2012 and 2015, but he scored only 33 runs per innings, and did not make a major contribution in five of them. Of course, there’s still great value in a player who ensures that there are no hiccups at the end. But by being unbeaten in seven of these eight innings, his average became mind-boggling.

Comparisons with his average in other periods of his career can only disappoint in contrast to this inflated average. He scored 35 runs per innings in successful chases after the 2015 World Cup, but his average is obviously lower, because he was batting at Nos 4 and 5 in this period, and could not see the team through to the finish line.

An important thing to note is that whenever cricket pundits talk of Dhoni’s record in successful chases, they do not take into account that in the last five years (after the change of rules came into effect) India have had 25 successful chases, but Dhoni has batted in only 12 of them. Among those 12, he has made a significant contribution in only four.

Another factor is that in the 2012-’15 period, Dhoni scored more runs per innings in unsuccessful chases than successful ones. This can be attributed to his insistence, as captain, to bat at No 6, regardless of the match situation. This led to many occasions on which the match was almost lost by the time he came out to bat, and he simply gave some rear-guard action, because of which his numbers in chases became inflated. Examples of this are the 2015 World Cup semi-final against Australia and the Johannesburg ODI in the bilateral series against South Africa in 2013.

The point of this is that Dhoni’s “inability” to win matches for India batting second has come under fire in the last two years or so, when the truth is that he wasn’t having as big an impact on chases even in the two-and-a-half years before the World Cup. This is the danger in taking numbers at face value.

It is clear that Dhoni’s overall numbers have seen a drop after the 2015 World Cup. However, it must be remembered that Dhoni, at his peak, was one of the greatest ODI batsmen of all time. Therefore, a dip in form for him does not necessarily mean that he does not belong in the team anymore.

There are clear indications that some aspects of his game, which don’t always receive a lot of attention, have actually improved. If the Indian team focuses on these, Dhoni can still score lots of runs and win lots of matches for them. It is easy to say that Dhoni does not belong in the team based on only a few numbers, but when you sit back and imagine an Indian team without Dhoni, even today, it seems like a scary prospect.

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