When I returned to India after a brief hiatus, IPL 2 was in full swing. Of course, I had followed the action over the net, and for a couple of days, on a Thai hotel TV. But now, watching the matches in my own living room, often without multi-tasking, I observed subtle changes in Dhoni. The first change was the way he handled the post-match presentation ceremonies: the Chennai Superkings captain, I thought, had become quite verbose.
When the presenter asked him if the pitch offered something to the bowlers early on, Dhoni gave him a complete match summary, including what his boys did right, what they did wrong and what they must now do. This wasn’t the Dhoni of old. A couple of years ago, this surprisingly articulate man – from Bang Nowhere, mind you – was such a joy to listen to. His answers would be crisp, to the point. Almost as if he was challenging the presenter to ask the right questions. And suddenly, his answers were directed not to the presenter but to his own subconscious.
The Uber Cool had become Deliberately Cool. Now, there was an edge in Dhoni’s nonchalance. As if he had suddenly realized that he had much to lose. And since this was happening when the Superkings were comfortably placed on the League Table, I reached the intrusive and unkind conclusion that something’s not quite right in his personal life. Such is the price an Indian cricketer pays for his fame – a casual “expert” like me is entitled (ahem!) to let his imagination run wild.
As the games progressed, though, I felt a tad justified. Dhoni was messing up behind the stumps, but not because he was in a flurry. Rather, he was losing a few micro-moments to the slow-motion playing in his brain. Even more telling was the fact that he was occasionally showing his displeasure when one of his boys erred on the field.
Well, it bothered me. No, I wasn’t cheering the Superkings. But the T20 World Cup was right around the corner – there was barely enough time for Dhoni to get his act together and knit a team out of our mavericks. Everything depended on that.
Needless to say, the first warm-up match against New Zealand was a good enough indicator of things to come. The All New Unimproved Dhoni had showed up to defend the cup. I wrote a Facebook entry: Not getting positive vibes this time, and left it at that.
Meanwhile, the rest of the fraternity was getting uppity about a different failure on Dhoni’s part: his batting. The fact that he wasn’t unleashing the huge hits that signalled his arrival on the world scene. Hello? Where has everybody been? Dhoni hasn’t played a swashbuckling innings since… well, here’s the thing and there’s no escaping it… Dhoni hasn’t played a swashbuckling innings since Dravid was unceremoniously chucked out of the Indian ODI side. Yeah. Once Dravid left, Dhoni choose to be the sheet anchor, the Dravid-like finisher.
What other option did he have? Gifted though the Indian batting lineup was – with the likes of Gambhir, Sehwag, Yuvraj, Rohit and Raina – it would have evident to the new captain that all of them were stroke-makers. None was natural in the ship-steadying business. So. Like a true leader, Dhoni decided to be the grown-up. Perhaps he had searched deep within and determined that he liked caution. Perhaps the role, once assumed, became his own. Either ways, Dhoni played this role superbly, winning us a series of ODI series. Over the past couple of years, he walked in at number 3, 4, 5, 6 or even 7, and did the job. Especially in the half-crumbling, half-sleeping sub-continental pitches. This was run-a-ball Dhoni. A half-century without a single boundary. Or 70 in 65 balls. Or 80 in 70 balls. The one aberration to this glorious run was an ODI we lost with Dhoni returning to the pavilion, not out, after a long innings. It had been a reasonable run-a-ball innings, but India had needed more. That evening, I cindered the memories of his early batting. I decided that his Nagpur blitzkrieg, his mind-numbing assault on the Aussies and Pakis, are unrepeatable acts. This T20 World Cup must have driven most fans to the same conclusion, I suppose.
But I still remain a fan of Dhoni. A huge one at that. Of course, I could have been a gargantuan fan had Dravid been around. (Remember, just before he was dropped, Dravid had scored 92 in 60 balls against a spirited English attack. So his days as a plodder were definitely behind him. He had become a true situational maestro in the 50-over game.) And with Dravid (or an apt replacement) wearing blue, we probably wouldn’t have seen the Dhoni Ferrari driving on the slow lane.
This transformation of the Jharkhand juggernaut, and his eventual inability to bat in higher gears, also tells us that batting – more so aggressive batting – is predominantly about pre-programmed hand-eye coordination. The body takes over, the retinas make the muscles move, the ball disappears. Not much to do with mental strength. That plays a role between deliveries, when the body is fidgeting.
In Dhoni’s case, the pre-program has changed. If he wants to bat in a higher gear again, he needs to go back to the nets and allow his body to relearn the Big Bang drills. He must bring that game to the T20 format. As for the 50-50 format, well, run-a-ball Dhoni’s as good as it gets.