Last night, we saw Mahendra Singh Dhoni repeat the same old routine — with the match on the line, he unfurled the big shots in the last over to take India to a win that many might have considered improbable in the pre-Dhoni era of Indian cricket.
Going into the last over, India needed 15 runs off 6 balls courtesy Ishant Sharma who played out the second last over for a mere two runs. But he did what the captain wanted — stayed in the middle and took the match into the last over.
A widish full delivery outside the off-stump to start off the final over saw Dhoni swing away and not connect with the ball. But then the bowler made the mistake of getting just a little bit closer to the stumps.
And a little bit closer means straight in the Indian skipper’s hitting zone. The second ball was dispatched for six — straight over the bowler’s head. It was hit so powerfully that it hit the roof, and the bowler, the inexperienced Shaminda Eranga playing in just his 11th ODI, knew he was up against it. Being forced into a corner by one of the greatest finishers in ODI cricket can be nerve-wracking — you can respond with bravado or you can go blank.
Eranga went blank.
The plan against Dhoni can never be to bowl length deliveries — he is much too powerful for that. Off the third ball — a length delivery, Dhoni hit a four over point. He had scored 10 runs off three balls without breaking a sweat. But by this point, the bowler was far gone.
With India needing 5 to win off 3 balls, Eranga bowled another length delivery and then watched it disappear over extra cover. Dhoni had finished things with a six.
His team-mates rushed out to hug him and shout out their joy. But all Dhoni did was smile. He finished with 45 off 52 balls (16 off those runs coming off the last three balls he faced), India won the match and the tri-series with two balls to spare.
In the post-match conference, Rohit Sharma, who made a gritty 58, outlined the belief that the team has in their skipper.
“We have seen Dhoni doing it over and over again, so it was not so much of a surprise,” said Rohit.
The ‘not much of a surprise’ comment just showcases that if the match gets into the last over with Dhoni in the middle, a win is the norm for India. Indeed, at some level, his team-mates and even the opposition expect that.
The win also took Dhoni’s average in successful chases past 100 — the highest average in the world. In 72 successful chases by India, Dhoni has batted in 54 innings, been not out 33 times, scored 2102 runs with a high score of 183* — at as astounding average of 100.09. His strike-rate of 89.63 isn’t quite electrifying but it just shows that he knows exactly when to push the accelerator. (You can check out the table HERE)
For the purposes of the above statistics, we are looking only at matches played against Australia, Bangladesh, England, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Zimbabwe. In other words, the top teams.
There are others who have scored more runs in successful chases — Brian Lara, for instance, scored 3498 runs at an average of 68.58. Tendulkar, who doesn’t play ODIs any more, has 5490 runs at an average of 55.45. But Dhoni often comes in with the match on the line and for him to average 100 in that situation is almost Bradmanesque.
The unflappable temperament comes to the fore yet again. Dhoni shrugged it off with the comment: “I think I am blessed with a bit of good cricketing sense.”
There are others like Russel Arnold — 38 mts, 18 inngs, 546 runs, avg of 91 — who get close in terms of average. But they haven’t quite done it for the same quantum of time as Dhoni. Michael Bevan, regarded by many as one of the great finishers, averaged 86.25 in successful chases over 75 matches.
The Aussie was once asked about his ‘finishing’ philosophy and his answer made things look startlingly simple.
“I felt it was my job as a No 6 batsman to be there at the end when we were either chasing runs or setting totals,” said Bevan in an interview to ESPNCricinfo. “Quite often when you go in and your side is in trouble, the last thing on your mind is winning. You try to survive, hang around and keep an eye on the run-rate so that it’s still manageable. In one-day cricket the pressure comes from the run-rate and the scoreboard and they’re the factors that you need to cope with.”
Dhoni’s thoughts on the matter mirror Bevan’s and at some level, you can’t help but wonder why more batsmen can’t do this. However, by the time, Dhoni is done with his career — he might have reduced the imperfect science of chasing to something that even normal batsmen won’t have any trouble doing.
Then, the ICC will have to find a way to even the odds.