Mahendra Singh Dhoni is no stranger to criticism, but what he is facing now must be a first. He has been rapped on the knuckles for not showing positive intent during his scrappy innings against Afghanistan in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019. No less a person than Sachin Tendulkar has said that Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav were too worried about losing a wicket rather than taking control.
To be sure, the fall of another wicket at that stage on the extremely slow pitch would have imposed enormous pressure on the lower half of the Indian batting, not renowned for chipping in with more than a handful of runs. Viewed against the backdrop of the whole match, that partnership could not be faulted for a safety-first approach, even if it managed 57 off 84 deliveries.
Of course, the inability to find the gaps and rotate the strike is worthy of criticism but it is important for critics, especially former cricketer, to be careful with their choice of words. They can be very strong influences and lead to a backlash by emotional fans. To say Dhoni lacked positive intent can spark myriad thoughts – not all positive – in the minds of millions.
Clearly, those who are leading a chorus against the absence of positive intent during his rebuilding effort with Kedar Jadhav have pegged their expectations from Dhoni very high without taking into consideration his reducing returns in the past couple of years. Surely, they were not looking elsewhere when he batted 13 one-day internationals in 2018.
For, his declining strike rate has been in evidence for a while now, not the least being through all of last year when he made just 275 runs with a strike rate of 71.42 – his lowest for any year since making debut in 2004. He lifted it to 78.38 this year but none of his four half-centuries against Australia, barring the unbeaten 55 in Adelaide, has come at a-run-a-ball pace.
There is no doubt that he has been an accumulator rather than an aggressor. It would be wrong to expect Dhoni to often find that extra gear, definitely not on a sluggish track on which stroke-play was difficult for each one of the Indian batsmen except Virat Kohli. It is such expectations that he would turn the clock back and hit his way out of trouble that causes immense disappointment too.
The one man who will be well aware of Dhoni’s reducing impact with the bat has to be skipper Kohli and it would appear that he does not have an issue. We will get at least a hint if he also believes that ‘not-enough-positive-intent’ when we watch Dhoni walk in to bat the next time since the batting order is really the captain’s call.
It will be interesting to see if the team management, particularly skipper Kohli, believes that Dhoni should be rested for a game or two. On the anniversary of India’s maiden World Cup conquest in 1983, it is tough not to recall that Sunil Gavaskar was made to sit out of two crucial league games against Australia and the West Indies.
The mind, attuned to recollection, went back to March 2007 when India lost to Bangladesh in Port of Spain. Sourav Ganguly, who usually treated left-arm spinners with disdain, played 82 dot balls in scoring 66 off 129 deliveries (four fours). Tendulkar managed three scoring strokes for 7 runs in his 26-ball effort as Bangladesh choked India with three left-arm spinners.
They also played freeze frames from the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 semi-final against Australia when Kohli scrapped to 1 off 13 deliveries when India were chasing 329 for victory at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Ajinkya Rahane played the anchoring effort with 44 off 68 balls. Of course, it was not a lack of positive intent on either of those occasions.
It will be a good wager that Dhoni did not think of either game, loving as he does to keep his mind in the present, but, just as certainly, he would surely have wanted to help the team avoid stepping on a banana peel. Had he sought to make the scorers work harder, it is possible that India could have slipped into deeper trouble than they already were.
Be that as it may, India will be hoping that if it was a brain fade, it will not recur in the World Cup. And if it was part of a sensible game plan that came unstuck because India finished some 20 to 30 runs short of the desired score, India will not want to let Dhoni feel the heat that is being turned on back home.
One of the possible adverse results of the criticism around the lack of positive intent is that Dhoni may try to go hard at the bowling in the other games. But then Dhoni is a past master at dealing with pressure, expecting it to show up and, more often than not, making the important accomplice work in his favour.
However, it will be important for coach Ravi Shastri to ensure that Dhoni does not try to over-reach himself by seeking to turn the clock back a few years. Even if he can regain the smart, percentage play that he embraced, Dhoni can be more than useful to the side. The good thing is that Dhoni has learnt to cope with criticism with the grace that he shows for appreciation.
As it is, he has already endured two spells in the spotlight in this World Cup – for wearing a logo in his wicket-keeping gloves and riling up the International Cricket Council and for his sluggish batting. And yet, Dhoni will have to believe that he can still make his final World Cup campaign count. Not just with his skills from behind the stumps.