Brisbane: As Rohit Sharma came on to bowl the 12th over of the Australian innings, everyone watching was in a fix. Was this a typical MS Dhoni ploy to throw proceedings off the hook? Or, was it some other calculation in his mind, perhaps to change bowler ends? Could it be that he wanted to try out the centurion’s luck with the ball too?
“He didn’t give me any special advice how to bowl or say anything about the pitch. He just said I might bowl another couple overs,” said Rohit, a day before the second ODI in Brisbane.
George Bailey duly deposited him for six off the fourth delivery, as he was taken for 11 runs. He didn’t bowl again. Dhoni’s ploy hadn’t worked. Such strokes of genius are increasingly becoming rare with time. Thereafter, his spinners were hit out of the attack, and the clearer picture emerged when Virat Kohli lumbered up to bowl the first of his three overs.
That moment found its origin from the pre-match press conference where Dhoni spoke about the role his five bowlers must play. “If you see the squad now, there are not many batsmen who can also bowl. That means if we have only five bowlers in the side, there won’t be anybody to share the bowling load if somebody is under pressure or doesn’t have a very good day.”
Dhoni has relied quite heavily on his part-timers to get the job done. Hell, he won an ODI World cup with a part-timer bamboozling different oppositions with 15 wickets. Remember Yuvraj Singh? At other times, he has used Virender Sehwag and Suresh Raina, even Yusuf Pathan the odd time he played, and Sachin Tendulkar too -- all of them bowling varying numbers of overs under his leadership.
Obviously, when the ODI rules were changed in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup – allowing only four fielders outside the circle in the last ten overs and introducing two new balls – Dhoni was the most worried captain. Is it any wonder that his usage of part-timers relatively dried up as India began playing five bowlers consistently?
Yet, he threw in a different mix at every opportunity. Sample this: Raina has bowled 267 overs in 108 matches since the 2011 World Cup as compared to only 80.2 in 115 matches from his debut in 2005 till the 2011 World Cup.
Much of it is to do with Yuvraj’s absence, but Dhoni’s affinity with part-timers cannot be denied.
The underlying point is, Indian cricket – and Dhoni therein – is heavily dependent on its part-timers for success in limited-overs cricket. But the landscape today, as pointed out in Perth, has changed.
Dhawan cannot bowl because his action is deemed suspect. Rahane might bowl, if it means saving his life. Rohit and Kohli don’t bowl nearly enough overs to become operational part-timers. Unless Dhoni takes off his gloves and bowls himself, like he has done in the past, this problem is not getting sorted anytime soon.
And we don’t really need to wait to see the impact on results. It was there in plain sight in Perth, as India struggled with the spinners leaking runs. Dhoni places immense faith in his slower bowlers, and his skill as keeper-captain is enhanced when they are on song.
Give him a wicket with slow turn and good bounce, a decent target to defend, a couple of spinners and maybe a part-timer. Then sit back, order popcorn, and watch Dhoni orchestrate magic. The win over South Africa in Indore last October was a prime example of this.
George Bailey and Steve Smith took on the spinners in Perth, and all was lost. And that’s the fine print from the first ODI. India didn’t lose because the Rohit-Kohli partnership didn’t score quickly enough. It was only the sixth time a score over 300 was chased in Australia. No, India lost because Rohit and Kohli aren’t good enough part-timers. Not yet, anyway.
It puts the team selection in a bind. Manish Pandey can feel his spot in threat already, even though he he didn't face a ball in Perth in only his second ODI. Dhoni believes Gurkeerat Mann is an option, perhaps the only all-round option available to him. Why he doesn’t consider Rishi Dhawan as one, despite his impressive domestic record, is a worrying question. For a moment though, even if he did and tried to fit in both of them, how will that even work out?
Mann could come in for Pandey; it is unfair but it is in the higher interests of the team. Even then, Rishi Dhawan doesn’t find a way in. Even if Dhoni makes bold moves and plays both, he is still only left with five bowlers unless one of the top-order batsmen makes way. That is highly improbable because India cannot pick six bowlers and compromise the batting order further.
This situation is a fine pickle, and the series is dependent on Dhoni’s decisions. He is the one to select the final eleven and answer questions about his choices, win or lose. And that’s why he is paid the big bucks for a thankless job.