MS Dhoni and the art of wicketkeeping: Overshadowed by the bat, his glovework is just as inventive
Compared to his skill with bat, and his trophy cabinet as captain, Dhoni’s wicketkeeping nous has gone comparatively unnoticed, despite him being around for more than a decade.
Lets play a game. Where I say a word, and you have to say the first word that comes to mind. Ready?
Last ball six.
Back to work.
Sounds about right? The best finisher in the one day game, India’s most successful captain, the man with the famous game face that never drops, and guy who will hit a six to finish the match. These are the plaudits that we pin to the chest of MS Dhoni without hesitation. His wicketkeeping though, is often overshadowed by the weight of his other skills and achievements.
So it is not surprising that amidst the frenzy of KL Rahul’s last ball six that brought up his century, most people forgot the fact that MS Dhoni went past 700 dismissals in Saturday’s game.
In the list of highest dismissals across all three formats, Dhoni has been at number three for some time, and is only the third stumper to cross the 700-mark. He is also the only Indian on the end of the list that matters; Nayan Mongia and Syed Kirmani are at numbers 25 and 26 respectively. With the sheer volume of international cricket played these days, and the longevity of Dhoni, that is not unexpected.
While he is unlikely to move higher in this list (Gilchrist at number two has 905 dismissals, Boucher at the top has 998, and Dhoni is close to 36 years old), he is already on top of another. Dhoni holds the record for most stumpings across formats (148). While the huge bulk of Gilchrist and Boucher’s dismissals are catches, Dhoni has a large percentage of stumpings to his name, which points to the different strengths in the respective bowling attacks. Indeed, against the swinging ball, particularly in England, Dhoni has often been found wanting. But standing up to the stumps, he has no parallel.
In cricket, one of the first things fielders are taught, is to ‘receive’ the ball. This involves keeping ones hands soft, and moving fractionally with the direction of the ball once it has been caught, to smoothly absorb its momentum, and prevent it from popping back out. ‘Receiving’ is cricket’s version of shock absorbers, and its answer to Newton’s third law. It is also called ‘giving’ with the ball. Needless to add, it is an essential skill for wicketkeepers.
Now make a quick detour to YouTube. Look at stumpings by some of the best in the game - Gilchrist, Sangakkara and so one. Notice, on the side-on view, how they ‘receive’ the ball for a fraction of a second after collecting it, before their hands change direction and move towards the bails.
Now look at videos of Dhoni. His hands don’t go back at all. In fact, you might see them moving infinitesimally towards the ball instead. This reduces the distance his hands need to travel to the bails by a fraction, which creates a drastic increase in stumping opportunities.
But how does Dhoni still keep his hands soft while moving towards the ball?
“While others use their hands to produce that give, he uses his wrists. While his hands are going towards the stumps, there’s a slight flick of the wrists in the backward direction,” said R Sridhar, India’s fielding coach in an Indian Express report. “That’s the Mahi way, and it’s one step ahead of the regular wicket-keeping manual,” he adds.
This explains how Dhoni can pull off blink-and-you-miss-it stumpings. Remember his leg side effort to dismiss Sabbir Rahman against Bangladesh in the WT20? Most keepers would have been too slow to catch the split second that Rahman had his foot in the air. Indeed, when first seen on TV, few people believed that the appeal would be anything more than a cursory visit to the third umpire. Dhoni himself didn’t seem sure.
Whether it’s him standing up to the pace bowlers or standing back to spinners (yes he’s done that too), Dhoni has always been innovative. The latest addition to his bag of tricks was his fancy foot work. On more than one occasion in the IPL, Dhoni used his pads to try to stop the ball, sticking his right leg out at ninety degrees when the batsman tried to play a late cut or a reverse paddle. It has added another dimension to his wicketkeeping, at a stage where most consider as the twilight of his career.
But if his batting and captaincy overshadows his keeping, then his awareness overshadows his glove work. More often than not, what has allowed Dhoni to don the gloves for India for so long and yet fly under the radar (read: do well enough to avoid criticism), is his presence of mind. Nothing captures it better than the run out off the final ball in the same WT20 game against Bangladesh, which won India the match. Not bad for a fellow who was once not even the first keeper of choice for his zone.
Much has been made of Dhoni’s other invention, the helicopter shot. Across the world, you see kids and professionals alike emulating him. In comparison, few have analysed his novel wicketkeeping skills though. The ‘Mahi way’, with its obvious advantages, may soon be taught in coaching clinics around the world. But it is something he is famous for rarely practising himself.
Compared to his skill with bat, and his trophy cabinet as captain, Dhoni’s wicketkeeping nous has gone comparatively unnoticed, despite him being around for more than a decade. In a sense, this is perhaps the greatest testimonial to Dhoni’s excellence. After all, you only notice a wicket keeper when he makes mistakes.
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