England’s comprehensive win over India in the second Test exposed the fatal flaw in MS Dhoni’s strategy: the lack of a Plan B. Once Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen began to get on top of India’s spinners, Dhoni had nowhere to turn. The lack of a Plan B also raises another question; has Dhoni run out of ideas in Test cricket?
From the start of the series, India’s captain has been singing the same note. Yes, spin is India’s strength and yes, England have a weakness against spin but stacking the deck so far in one direction means Dhoni leaves himself with no alternatives. Either the strategy works or India are in trouble, which proved to be the case in Mumbai.
Mohammad Azharuddin made playing three spinners a virtue in the 1990s. But not only have India’s ambitions changed, the rest of the cricketing world has more experience playing in the sub-continent thanks to the IPL and a growing number of coaching camps being held in the country. Cook himself has been the beneficiary of such camps, coming here as a youngster to learn how to play in these conditions.
Yet Dhoni seems to be unwilling to concede that anything needs to change. Despite a pitch that was crumbling from the first day, he said after the match that it was “a very good wicket” and that “definitely all the wickets should be like this." He also appears reluctant to tamper with the make-up of the side, saying “you don't chop and change players on the basis of one of two Test matches. You have to give them a fair run."
All of which suggests that Dhoni has decided there is only one way for India to play and is reminiscent of his repeated comments when India was losing to England and Australia. Essentially, India are what they are and there is no point in trying to change things because it won’t do any good. India will struggle against pace and seam abroad and India can only win series at home if they prepare rank turners. If the opposition outplays them and the strategy fails, so be it. In effect, Dhoni doesn’t seem to care that it is his job as captain do something about it.
The problem with such an approach is that the team will never get better and will never develop the ability to adapt to different conditions. Cheteshwar Pujara and Gautam Gambhir were the only India batsman who showed the application necessary to survive at the Wankhede Stadium. In the second innings, only Gambhir faced more than 20 deliveries. That the spinners were out-bowled by their England counterparts is an even greater indictment of the side.
Dhoni’s reaction was to blame the conditions. “Some conditions suit them really well and some do not,” he said by way of explanation of why Monty Panesar was so successful, which is ironic considering he picked those conditions.
Dhoni only has to look into the England dressing room to see how teams adapt their strategies. England were criticized for not playing Panesar and getting the balance of their side wrong. Used to playing three seamers, they abandoned what has worked for them over the last few years and Panesar rewarded them with the best figures for an England spinner in the subcontinent for 80 years.
India has eight days to reflect before the teams meet at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata. Dhoni would do well to heed the same lessons that England did in that time.