INDIA VS AUSTRALIA, 2019
Dhoni is coming off his most underwhelming year of his career as an ODI batsman. © Getty
“Chai peene ka time ho gaya. Chai peene ka mausam bhi hai. (It’s time to have some tea. It’s the kind of weather to have tea)” With that MS Dhoni walked off from the indoor net he’d been facing the bowling machine in for nearly half hour. He was right too. The Sydney skies had gone from sombre to dark grey and there was a heavy drizzle in the air. It left the Indians huddled up in the indoor practice area, and Dhoni had been among the first ones to get involved.
He’d hit about a 100 deliveries before his impromptu tea-break. Most of them had throwdown specialist Raghu getting the bowling machine to simulate Adam Zampa as Dhoni looked to try shots that will help him rotate the strike in a match scenario.
It was a typically relaxed Dhoni otherwise, as he ambled around cracking jokes when he wasn’t helping Raghu retrieve the balls he’d shot down. And the call for tea, his preferred drink on any day regardless of the weather, was just a routine extension of his innate calmness and of how nothing seems to have changed with this facet of Dhoni’s cricket.
In contrast, a lot has changed with the dressing-room that the former captain returns to in Australia. For starters, he’s not just the oldest but to some, senior by two or three generations. What has also changed unfortunately for the 37-year-old veteran are his numbers in the middle with bat in hand.
Dhoni is coming off his most underwhelming year of his career as an ODI batsman. It was the first year where he failed to score a 50 since his maiden outing in 2004, when he only played in 3 matches. His 2018 average of 25 in 13 innings was also his poorest ever.
Most glaringly, it was also a year where his strike-rate dipped to 71.42. It was only the second time in his long run as one of 50-over cricket’s most dominant batsmen that he was striking throughout a year at less than 78 runs per hundred balls.
It happened in 2010, when his strike-rate over 17 innings stood at 78.94, but it was a year where he averaged 46.15 and scored 1 century and 3 half-centuries. And you know it’s certainly not been a Dhoni year when you see that he managed to hit only 19 fours and 2 sixes across 13 innings, especially when you consider he faced 385 balls overall.
Will 2019 be any better? The Indian selectors and the team management will certainly hope so, considering this is a World Cup year and they’ll need Dhoni to if not return to his old self, at least hold the fort in the middle overs. He will too, considering it’s been such an ambition of his to play in his fourth World Cup.
By giving him the long rope, a move which has received mixed reviews, the selectors have also left themselves with little choice but to bank on him. They’ve already reposed their faith in him further by recalling him to the T20I squad as well for New Zealand.
Only 13 ODIs remain before India’s opening match in England and the wicket-keeper’s slot at least seems to have been decided already. It’s up to Dhoni to make MSK Prasad & Co look good now. The only reason you might feel he might turn the corner one final time is because it’s Dhoni and India has got used to Dhoni finding a way.
It was interesting to see him spend an extended session preparing for Zampa. Only 3 out of his 24 dismissals have come against spin after all. But it’s been his struggles to manoeuvre the ball around against the slower bowlers in the middle to late overs that’s been a bane of sorts for Dhoni. No wonder then that his focus seemed more on gliding the ball into potential gaps in front and behind point rather than working on his big-hitting.
There was also a visible change in the way he was placing his bat in his stance, almost Ijaz Ahmed like with the edge of the bat making more contact with the ground. Maybe it’s a tactic to ensure that his bat comes down a lot straighter and assists in a freer flow of the bat, which has again only been seen in patches of late.
There are some theories which suggest that his struggles are perhaps a sign of how his reflexes aren’t the same as they used to be. Some believe it’s just a case of age catching up with a batsman who has survived at this level despite not having the greatest technique but is now being found out.
But then how do you explain his reflexes behind the stumps, which only seem to get better with each outing. Perhaps it’s also a case of overexposure as in by now most teams around the world seem to have formulated plans with both their spinners and fast bowlers to stall Dhoni, even if it doesn’t always get him out.
Dhoni seemed to have found second wind during the IPL as he led CSK to another trophy last year. There was suddenly belief that he still had it. But it hasn’t quite played out the way he and his supporters would have hoped for.
The three ODIs in Australia will probably be the start of the most important year of Dhoni’s career where he doesn’t quite need to redefine himself, but certainly needs to rekindle his lost touch, even if only till the World Cup. And you can’t rule him out from doing so, because it’s Dhoni and India has got used to Dhoni finding a way.