India vs England, ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: MS Dhoni's lack of intent sticks out in spiritless chase

  • Shantanu Srivastava
  • July 1st, 2019
  • 12:45:53 IST

Thirty-nine runs scored from 31 balls. In an unrelated context, it would be a half-decent ODI innings, below par T20 innings, and an enterprising Test cameo. When juxtaposed to Sunday's (30 June) scoreline - 39 runs is what India scored off their last 31 balls, chasing England's 337 - it becomes an incredibly flabbergasting stat that screams one definitive question: Where was the intent?

After all, it was the cryptic buzzword when Ajinkya Rahane was axed from the ODI set-up, and reappears every time Cheteshwar Pujara is benched from Test XIs. Back in the day, when skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni decided to move on from tiring veterans - an event so seminal in his career it made it to his gratuitous hagiography - 'intent' was still very much intended for. How sport - and life - comes around.

It's a word that is brandished about way too often by the Indian team management, and on Sunday, with the subcontinent serendipitously rooting for India, its absence from the chase made for 20 minutes of farcical viewing.

Facts first. Dhoni, the finisher, is long gone. We'll save the nostalgia of the muscular, long-haired, bike-riding, military-loving, six-hitting saviour for his retirement, but yes, the finisher is over.

MS Dhoni's slow batting has come under severe criticism after loss to England. AP

MS Dhoni's slow batting has come under severe criticism after loss to England. AP

It's a fact that Dhoni drove home years back as much by way of words as by (non) performances, but thanks to his fairly consistent Indian Premier League excellence, fans were led to believe what they saw. They believed the desperation that made him cross the line - literally and figuratively - in this year's IPL when he entered the field of play to protest a contentious decision for his franchise, stemmed from his layered ferocity and competitiveness. They were, obviously, wrong.

Obviously, the England game could be an aberration. So could be the West Indies game, so could be the Afghanistan game, so could be the Pakistan game, and so could be many others in recent past. Funny thing is, when aberrations as mighty as these appear as regularly as the English rain, they cease to be aberrations. Depending on how you look at it, they either remain casual accidents or become clarion calls.

Sunday should serve that clarion call, not because a match - that might still be inconsequential in India's scheme of things - was lost, but because it was lost in a manner that goes against the perceived principles of this Indian team. When Virat Kohli fell chasing an improbable 364 in the fourth innings of that memorable Adelaide Test in 2014, when borderline foolhardy was passed off as legit intent in Centurion 2018, and when, despite a certain defeat at the Champions Trophy final in 2017, Hardik Pandya went on a six-hitting spree, one sensed Indian cricket had moved on from the age of dusty draws and tame surrenders. Sunday should be a clarion call simply for the retrogradation it served on us. There have been enough wake-up calls.

Between Pandya's dismissal in the 45th over till the end of 49th over, Dhoni faced 15 balls and scored 19 runs when India needed 61 runs from 25 balls. The last over went for 12 runs, with Dhoni collecting 11 of those (including the only six of the Indian innings). The scoreboard says Dhoni scored 42 from 31 balls. The scoreboard has lied again, as it did against West Indies, Afghanistan and on so many previous aberrations.

Dhoni's last two slowdown-inducing efforts came when India batted first, and the convenient argument was that the experienced campaigner that he is, Dhoni has magically calculated the par score despite his well-documented limitations as a batsman. India, of course, went on to win the matches in contrasting styles. The open secret, however, was for all to see. Professional sport can be brutal, and no matter how much you try, blunders can't be whitewashed as tactics.

Dhoni earned his stripes as an ODI great on the back of his astute understanding of a run chase. The 'supercomputer' that now reduces the par score each time he takes the crease operated on a different programme in the noughties. He would not go slam-bang early, but that didn't translate to dead bat. Angles were explored, corners were maneuvered, feet were used, ingenuity was introduced, and when the time was right, the big hits arrived.

With time, bowlers adjusted their lengths. They forego full balls, gave up the good length, shunned short balls, and stuck to the back of the length on the off stump. Problem was, Dhoni failed to devise or implement a plan to attack such balls. He doesn't ramp, scoop or sweep, doesn't have a cover drive, doesn't shuffle to open the leg side.

Basically, he nurdles and nudges and waits for the bowler to bowl in his arc. This trick, to take the game deep and play with the bowlers' nerve and force him to bowl to your strength, works with inexperienced bowlers defending low scores. Chris Woakes, Ben Stokes, and Jofra Archer have logged enough death overs to let nerves get to them, not when they are defending 337 runs, not when the batsman is not willing to attack. For someone whose carefree inventiveness and raffish disregard for conventions formed the crux of his batting, such monolithism is alarming at best and elitist at worst.

Dhoni, on Sunday, was defeated before the defeat defeated him. It was a bewilderingly sorry sight. On a night when the likes of Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya - playing their maiden World Cup - showed fight, the spirit fizzed out of Dhoni without a trace. Sourav Ganguly summed it up perfectly when he said he had no explanation to Dhoni's reluctance for big shots. As the night wore on, a theory made way to the world wide web: Perhaps Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav were saving their wickets to ensure team's Net Run Rate remained over New Zealand's. In times when poaching of MLAs by political parties is termed as a tactical masterstroke, this defeatist mindset, if true, calls for a toast.

Excuses aside, Indian team management must seek some accountability from their seniormost resource. A relook is also needed at India's cast-in-stone template of going easy in the first powerplay and explode later. As the last three matches have proved, a slow start may or may not lead to a sound middle-overs foundation, but the much-desired late-over blitz has hardly ever arrived. In chase like these, a score of 28/0 in 10 overs means a wrong-footed start, and with a lower-middle order overtly reliant on Pandya to clear the fence, chances of a Sunday redux cannot be ruled out when India play Bangladesh on 2 July. Will they find the missing intent?

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Updated Date: July 01, 2019 12:45:53 IST

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