MS Dhoni was on 8 off 14 balls when he was beaten all ends up by a delivery from Fabian Allen. Shai Hope, the wicketkeeper, failed to collect the ball first time and then fumbled another chance as he tried to grab it and break the stumps.
Dhoni was so far down the pitch that he had given up. He wasn’t even attempting to get back in a hurry but that is when his and India’s luck stood strong. It was the 34th over of the innings and a wicket at that point would have meant India would have been reduced to 154/5.
Dhoni reacted to that error of thought by doubling back and buckling down — determined to not commit a mistake; determined to not do something foolish. From 8 off 14 balls, his innings progressed to 17 off 32 balls — a strike-rate of just above 50, slow, steady and very deliberate… calculating who he needed to target and who he needed to play out.
He could do that as long as Kohli was in the middle but when the Indian skipper was dismissed, Dhoni seemed to take more charge from a tactical viewpoint. Hardik Pandya can play the shots and Dhoni’s presence at the other end allowed him to go for it without worrying about anything else.
With their scores on 22, Pandya caught up with Dhoni. The allrounder needed only 20 balls to reach the score while Dhoni had needed 42. Together, they were pushing India towards a competitive total but their approaches at this point couldn’t have been any more dissimilar.
Even when Pandya was dismissed off the first ball of the 49th over, Dhoni’s score was 38 off 53.
But then, he caught up in one over. That’s what Dhoni does. That’s what he does so often that it has become his trademark. The bowler, Oshane Thomas, faltered a little and Dhoni was waiting.
Six off the first ball, singles refused on the second and third ball, four off the fourth, single refused off the fifth and a six off the last ball. 16 runs off the last over. A dose of the good, old Dhoni magic. He finished with 56 off 61.
It was a struggle for him but the team can count on Dhoni not throwing it away. And if he does get through a difficult period, he will catch up. He will not play a shot in anger as perhaps Rishabh Pant might, he will not try something extravagant as perhaps Dinesh Karthik might. Instead, he will stay in the middle for as long as possible, knowing his chance will come and when it will, he will pounce on it.
That is the Dhoni template now. He isn’t at his best against spin anymore but if he stays long enough in the middle, he will hurt the opposition. But he is clearly more vulnerable early in his innings than he was at any point in his career. The opposition knows that too.
“He [Dhoni] knows what he wants to do, and anybody can have off-days. When he has off-days, everybody starts talking. We back him, and the best thing is when you need extra 15-20 runs in the end, he does that well. He knows how to bat with the tail. His experience, eight out of 10 times, works for us,” said Kohli after the game.
The Indian captain added: “We have quite a few players who play instinctive cricket. He’s one guy who sends out a message that what the par score is on a pitch. He plays the calculative kind of innings. If he says 265 is a good score on a pitch, we don’t aim for 300 and end up scoring 230. He’s a legend for us, and hopefully, he’ll continue.”
With Shikhar Dhawan missing, the no. 4 position uncertain and a long tail, India need Dhoni to just play it smart and ensure that the team gets to at least a competitive total. Right now, it is clear that the strength of this team is their bowling but the batsmen need to put up enough runs on board to allow them to bowl to their potential.
And that is why even a slow innings from the ex-skipper might be worth its weight in gold because India knows Dhoni will always be looking at the big picture. He’ll never put his interests ahead of the team. It’s what he does. It’s what he does very, very well.
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