When he was recalled to the India ODI side after a gap of more than three years, Yuvraj Singh opined about Mahendra Singh Dhoni stepping down as captain in an interview to bcci.tv. He felt that the relieving of responsibility would allow Dhoni to play the way he used to when he was a fresh-faced, long-haired thrasher in the Indian side, more than a decade ago.
“We were both very fearless when we used to play together, so hopefully we can do the same in the upcoming series," Yuvraj said. As luck would have it, Yuvraj got his wish in the second ODI versus England at Cuttack, but he was only part correct in his prognostication, because old habits die hard.
In the last few years as India's captain, Dhoni was accepting of more responsibility in a lineup that included many youngsters. He was more than happy to take the onus of keeping one end up while the more carefree youth went about smacking the ball to various parts of the ground.
At Cuttack, Dhoni, not far-removed from captaincy, reprised his old role, allowing Yuvraj to do his thing while he cautiously rebuilt the innings after the top three were removed within 28 balls of the innings.
As he walked at the fall of another fruitless outing for Shikhar Dhawan, India were in a great deal of bother at 25/3. Chris Woakes, who troubled the Indians in Pune as well, was responsible for removing the top order. Dhoni accorded him all the respect he deserved and ensured he absorbed most of the deliveries from the Warwickshire man in the early going, to shield Yuvraj.
Of Dhoni’s first 15 balls, 14 of them were sent down by Woakes, and Dhoni shouldered arms for six of them. This was a good old fashioned ODI innings in a time when batsmen choose to attack as their primary mode of defense. When in doubt, hit out. Dhoni had snailed his way to a grand total of one from the first 15 deliveries he had faced.
As much as ODIs these days are becoming elongated version of a T20, Dhoni’s innings was instructive in that there is still a lot of time available in an ODI to construct an innings: See off the early movement; get the eye in; let the successful bowlers have their say; have small partnership targets. And finally when you are set and the timing is right, open up a bit more and hit a few boundaries. Once the innings has progressed a fair bit and having denied the bowlers any further opening, now dictate terms.
Dhoni’s first boundary did not come till the 23rd ball he faced – a cut over point when the bowler obliged with a wide delivery. He fed Yuvraj, who was in one of his vintage batting moods, as much of the strike as possible. Any sign of changing gears did not happen till the 23rd over when Dhoni thundered a straight drive past Moeen Ali. As can be seen from the table depicting Dhoni’s strike rate every 10 balls of his innings, the first big push came after he had faced more than 50 deliveries and the second surge in the last 20 deliveries he faced. That’s as perfect textbook ODI innings as one gets.
In a feature for The Cricket Monthly, Sidharth Monga of Cricinfo wrote about an interaction he had with the former India coach Greg Chappell. Chappell recalled an instance from a ODI series versus Sri Lanka at home where Dhoni headlined the scorers with nearly 350 runs and helped India to a 6-1 series win. During a particular chase, Dhoni apparently told Chappell that if he could see off the first 13 balls, he would win the match for India. Chappell said, "I don't know how he came to that number, and I didn't ask him. But he had the air of a man who knew he could do the job."
In Cuttack, Dhoni seemed to have used that same logic. Having seen off Woakes and got himself set, Dhoni’s innings progressed as follows (balls faced in parentheses): 10 (23), 20(37), 30(52), 42(61), 53(68), 60(71), 70(80), 80(90), 90(98), 100(106), 110(113), 121(118) and finally out on 134(122).
His strike rate hovered in the 50's in the initial third of the innings; in the vicinity of 80’s in the middle third, and didn’t exceed run a ball till the last few deliveries he faced off Plunkett when he had cut loose to cause mayhem. In addition to 64 runs accrued through boundaries (10x4, 4x6), Dhoni hared around for further 70 runs, the lifeblood of any good ODI knock.
Yuvraj received, rightly, all the accolades for a fluent 150 but it was the workmanlike-ODI innings Dhoni essayed that allowed Yuvraj the space to express himself. It’s not like Dhoni cannot hit the ball out of the park or scorch the turf – even the Spidercam had a taste of it; it’s that he reined himself in with utmost discipline to push the game along to a point where he could open his unquestionably broad shoulders.
A thoroughly professional ODI innings straight out of the manual that Dhoni himself had authored, pushed India to a 381 which in the final analysis turned out to be 15 runs too many for England. Just as Chappell noted, Dhoni had the air of the man who knew he could do it, and he just did it.