India has never been a land where the wicketkeeper’s willow has dictated terms to the ball. There have always been wicket keepers who can bat a bit. And yes, I do remember Mongia’s 152 against Australia, and his inconsistent pinch hitting prowess, Dasgupta’s innings to salvage our pride against the Proteas etc. But, these examples are few and far between. Wicketkeepers have always been the guardians of the tail-enders. Nothing more. Sometimes less.
That sunny morning in Vishakhapatnam saw a wicketkeeper of a different kind. India was playing Pakistan. Batting first, a wicket fell in the 4th over, and in walked a batsman who was heard of only on the domestic circuit, with faint murmurs surrounding him in the previous series against Bangladesh. He made his way to the centre; it was a clear that he had been sent as a pinch hitter. In his first major one day innings, all his team wanted him to do was to utilize the first 15 overs well. The whole country would be content with a snappy 40. He began his innings – for the lack of a polite word – shoddily. He nicked the balls outside off to third man, got beaten. But even then, he managed a brisk start. We didn’t care either. ‘Runs are important, no matter how they come’- one of the staple lines in a cricket commentator’s book was repeated for the nth time to reassure our woot against a nervous, inept batting display by a newbie.
Slowly, but surely, he settled in. Both in the pitch, the international arena, and his own skin. And then he batted, as if there was indeed no tomorrow. He went down the track, cut, pulled, hit the ball for a single and stole a two. We were reminded that his primary job was to keep wickets for us, later in the day. Damn! He looked like he could get into any side just on the basis of his batting. Like Sehwag, he didn’t have the best of techniques, but his hand-eye-coordination pummeled Pakistan to ignominy. 148 runs at a blinding speed. Take that!
The biggest disservice to someone’s talent is to label his work of genius as a ‘fluke’, a one off thing. 148 was chocolate syrup. But was he here to stay? The majority were still skeptical. Dhoni changed some opinions a few months later at Jaipur. There are some players with which you associate some very special memories. The first thing that flashes in one’s mind when you mention Jonty Rhodes is the sight of him running out Inzamam-ul-Haq by breaking the stumps in the ’92 World Cup. Every cricket fanatic has a distinct ‘memory-stamp’ of each player. For those who saw Dhoni that day, a six he hit over the covers off the bowling of Chaminda Vaas had to become his flagship memory shot, a shot played with such nonchalance that the outcome seemed completely divorced with the effort. Effortless, he didn’t even step out, just planting his front foot forward, sending the ball sailing into the stands stamped with Dhoni’s brilliance. 183 runs he scored that day. Did I say something about ‘fluke’ some lines ago? Pardon me.
Dhoni’s batting was never high on technique. No one was oblivious to that fact, and we were happy to embrace it, because when he hit those attempted yorkers in the death overs with maddening fury, suddenly, the paragraph number three of page 23 of the batting manual seemed oh-so-silly and irrelevant. Dhoni was the weapon we needed in the death overs. We had always made hay while the ball was nice and hard, courtesy the Sehwags, Sachins and the Gangulys. The lower half now looked all the more dangerous with the combination of Yuvraj and Dhoni. India had a new swagger while chasing those days. Even 90 off the last 10 overs wasn’t a big deal anymore.
Then, the team got embroiled in multiple controversies, and before one could get hold of what was happening M.S.Dhoni was the captain of the Indian team. With great power comes great responsibility. Every Indian Skipper, it seems, is a big fan of this quote from Spiderman. Sadly, captaincy for most Indian players seems to be a cue to stop playing their natural game. It had happened to many before Dhoni. We all figured Dhoni was the maverick, and therefore, an exception. But somewhere down the line, Dhoni metamorphosed from a slogger to an accumulator. Initially, he carried even this job with perfection – even sans any big hits, his strike rate was around 100. But the question is: Was the change required? Is M.S.Dhoni the man who is required to rotate the strike and steady the ship? Surely, we can have other players to do the job. Dhoni proved his mettle even in his new avatar (he averages a whopping 58 as a captain in ODIs, as opposed to 44 as non-captain!), but he has sacrificed his natural game in the process that has hurt the team’s prospects in the long run (athough his average has increased considerably, his strike rate went down substantially too, and his strike rate in T20 has been abdominally low.)
So, when India required 60 off the last 5 against England to survive and live to fight another day in the recently concluded T20 World Cup and Dhoni walked in, it was still possible. After all, he was the same Dhoni who had hit Vaas over cover for that physics-defying six, who used to heave his bat to dig out near-perfect yorkers and send them sailing over long on. Or, was he? He had been playing like a dormant volcano recently. But, the hope that he would explode was still there. He did not. He could not. His identity that he had bartered to shelter the team’s interest, ironically, betrayed the very team when it needed him the most.
Dhoni’s versatility was widely admired when he first became an accumulator, but it now appears that his core is at grave risk.
Originally Published at HoldingWilley