It's hard to determine the exact moment when expectations become exasperation. Like a swirl of darkness that blankly stares back at you at the end of an endless bridge, it is a feeling that has no defined dimensions. It's just infuriatingly unfamiliar; an antidote to an all-consuming addiction; an inevitable realisation that spawns from being repeatedly let down. It's like watching your favourite singer forget her lines in a packed auditorium. Embarrassment, these days, is watching Mahendra Singh Dhoni bat. There, I said it.
It has been a pain for a while now. He comes and plods and blocks and nudges and nurdles, and in doing so, sucks the momentum out of an innings. On days like Thursday (27 June), he provides a late flourish and all is forgotten. When you're winning, the last-over sixes stick longer than prolonged periods of ungainly blocks. When Sachin Tendulkar, a forever politically correct icon, goes against the grain, you know there's a problem.
Thursday was Old Trafford, but it could well be Southampton or Lord's or Melbourne or whatever. The argument that Dhoni has an individual style and will stick to it — in a team sport — has always elicited doubts, but his knocks against Afghanistan and West Indies must raise serious questions about his methods.
For someone who neither likes to drive down the ground nor use his feet to slow bowlers, fluency is always going to be a continuous quest. Add to it his all too visible discomfort against spinners early in his innings, and we have a stint of dabs, stabs, punches and prods — and very few runs.
It's a painfully familiar template now: Dhoni walks in, the opposition skipper calls on a spinner, places a short cover, mid-off and backward point, and the (no) show begins. The ball is darted in, Dhoni comes on the front foot and blocks. Another dart, another push; another dart, another dab, and so it goes in an endlessly infuriating, hair-pulling loop. One feels for the non-striker too, whose rhythm is systematically disturbed with this out of place plodding. For a T20 icon, this is downright embarrassing.
Against Afghanistan, Dhoni walked in with India on 122/3 in the 27th over. Four overs later, when Virat Kohli departed after scoring a breezy half-century, Dhoni decided he'll bat long. And so he scratched his way to 28 runs off 52 balls, including 33 dots. India scrapped to 224 runs, but because the bowling stood up to an inexperienced and nervous Afghanistan, the scoreboard shows an 11-run win.
Against West Indies, he arrived in the 29th over and hit a four on the fourth ball he faced. And then, almost on a whim, shut shop. Kohli departed 10 overs later, but Dhoni simply forgot to pick singles even before the skipper's dismissal. India hit just three boundaries between Dhoni's arrival and Kohli's departure (overs 28.6 to 38.2), two of which came off Kohli's bat.
Left-arm spinner Fabian Allen, playing his eighth One-Day International (ODI) and with the lone international wicket of Mohammad Mithun to his name, has Dhoni in knots. The ball is gripping, not turning, and certainly not misbehaving. Dhoni's technique to such balls and bowlers has remained the same throughout his career — if that can be classified as dogged determination is a debate for another day. The shovel comes out and the plodding resumes.
Dhoni scores 17 runs off 32 balls in this period (19 dots, 59.37 dot ball percent). Kohli faces 24 balls in this phase for his 21 runs (including the one on which he got out; 11 dots, 45.8 dot ball percent). In overs 31-40, India score 38/1 — the momentum that Kohli has assiduously built is gone, once again. Dhoni has calculated some par score, and the team will stick to it.
In ODIs in 2019, MS Dhoni's strike rate in the first 15 balls of his innings is just 35.18. Only two players in world cricket have scored more slowly than him in that stage of their innings. #CWC19 #WIvInd pic.twitter.com/66iHXO92z1
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) June 27, 2019
From over number 40 to 49, Dhoni plays 24 balls (only 5 dots) and scores 23 runs through risk-free bating. The big shots come out only in the final over, but the urgency and intent are visible nonetheless. However, the middle-over slowdown means India end up scoring far less than they could have and should have — the fact that India still win by 125 runs is down to a far superior bowling line-up.
In the post-match presentation, Kohli defended Dhoni's approach while highlighting the 37-year-old's knack to assess the pitch and the corresponding par scores.
The problem with this safety-first-at-all-costs approach is that it discounts the possibility of one of the frontline bowlers having an off day, or one of the opposition batsmen playing a blinder. To that extent, it takes the game's famed glorious uncertainties out of the equation and essentially operates in some cold vacuum of percentages.
For teams that chase well, such as Bangladesh on current form, the safety net ought to be considerably wider, and it will depend, to a great degree, on Dhoni showing the intent to milk the middle overs besides accounting for variables in his calculation of the par score.
Lest we forget, for the second match running, Dhoni was flummoxed by a spinner in flight and almost got stumped twice in as many games. Then, in the 48th over, he was dropped by Oshane Thomas off his own bowling. He was batting on 37 runs off 52 balls then. Before his last-over assault on Thomas, Dhoni was 40 off 56 (Strike Rate 71.4). The 16-run final over propelled his strike rate to 91.80, but it was really his pre-50th over slow burn that set the course of the Indian innings. On Thursday, as the scoreboard suggests, the late acceleration, or the lack of it, didn't matter much. It will, though, when India are 130/4 in 27 overs and setting a target against Australia.
Kohli must surely defend the eldest statesman in the team, but he would do well to acknowledge a problem waiting to unravel itself in a tense, knockout game against tougher opponents. This ain't a strategy punt it is made out to be; the problem is staring at India like that intangible swirl of the dark at the end of that endless bridge.