Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MS Dhoni - Split Personality?

[The article has been originlly published here. ]

India has never been a land where wicketkeeper's willow has dictated the terms to the ball. There have always been wicket keepers who can bat a bit. Yes. And I do remember Mongia's 152 against Australia, and his inconsistent pinch hitting prowess, Dasgupta's innings to salvage our pride against the Proteas. But, these examples are few and far. Wicketkeepers have always been the guardians of the tailenders. Nothing more. Nothing less.

That sunny morning in Vishakhapatnam saw a wicket keeper of a different kind. India was playing Pakistan. And while batting first, a wicket fell in the 4th over, and in walked a batsman, who was heard of only on the domestic circuit, and faintly in the previous series against Bangladesh. He made his way to the centre, and it was a clear indication that he had been sent as a pinch hitter. His first major one day innings, and all the team wants is to utilize the first 15 overs. The whole country would be content with a snappy 40. He begins his innings - for the lack of a polite word - shoddily. He knicks the balls outside off to third man, gets beaten. But, even then manages a brisk start. We don't care either. Runs are important, no matter how they come, one of the staple lines in the annals of a cricket commentator’s book is repeated for the nth time to reassure our woot against a nervous, inept batting display by a newbie.

Slowly, but surely, he settles. Both in the pitch, the international arena, and his own skin. And then he bats, as if there is indeed no tomorrow. He goes down the track, cuts, pulls, hits the ball for a single and steals a two. We are reminded that he would keep wickets for us, later in the day. Damn! He could get into any side just on the basis of his batting. Similar to Sehwag, he hasn't got the best of techniques, but, his hand-eye-coordination has pummeled Pakistan to ignominy. 148 runs at a blinding speed. Take that!

The biggest disservice to some one's talent is by labeling his work of genius as a 'fluke'. A one off thing. 148 was a chocolate syrup. But, was he here to stay? The majority was still skeptical. Dhoni blurred the line, some months later at Jaipur. There are some players with which you associate something very personal. For me, if you say Jonty Rhodes, the first thing that flashes my mind is him running out Inzamam-ul-Haq by breaking the stumps in the '92 World Cup. Every cricket fanatic has a distinct remembrance of each player. I never knew I would associate one with M.S. Dhoni, from that day on. It had to be that six he hit over the covers on the bowling of Chaminda Vaas. The beauty of the shot was, it was played with such nonchalance that the outcome of it seemed to be completely divorced with the effort. Effortless. He didn't even step out. He just planted his front foot forward, and the ball sailed 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 the 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 the page 23 of the batting manual seemed oh-so-silly and supplementary. 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, especially while chasing. Team India had a new swagger while chasing those days. Even 90 off the last 10, wasn't a big deal anymore. The big boys were in town.

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. Captaincy for the Indian players is sadly a license of not playing their natural game. It happened to so many before Dhoni. But, for all we knew Dhoni was the maverick. The new face of the Indian cricket. He took some brave decision, and India was back to its merry ways of winning. 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 it required, the change? Is, M.S.Dhoni the man who is destined to rotate the strike, and steady the ship? Just because he is the captain of the Indian Team, now? 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, as opposed to 44 as non-captain!), but, didn’t he sacrifice his natural self in the process that hurt the team’s prospects in the long run?( Although 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 be alive in the recently concluded T20 World Cup, and when Dhoni walked in. It was still possible. After all he was the same Dhoni, who had hit Vass of cover for that six, who used to heave his bat to dug out the yorkers and send them sailing over long on. Or, wasn’t he? He had been playing like a dormant volcano recently. But, the faith 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.

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