When MS Dhoni walked off the pitch in the penultimate over of the fourth ODI against the West Indies at Antigua, he had done just about enough to ensure that India had nowhere to go from there. He was dismissed trying to play his ONLY shot of the match, caught at long-on, on 54 off 114 painful deliveries. He had played one of his worst innings in limited overs cricket – of which there have been quite a few over the last two years alone. His once-trademark ability of taking a match deep turned into perhaps his greatest flaw.
It is annoying for fans who know of Dhoni’s stubbornness. He takes it down to a one-on-one contest against the bowler in the final over. His batting powers, in contrast to his keeping prowess, have been clearly on the wane. He is unable to rotate the strike and keep the scoreboard ticking, and if he can’t connect, there is perhaps no worse batting sight in modern cricket right now. His 54 came in India’s chase of a paltry 190 against a sub-standard West Indian bowling side. He mistimed a chase, and no Indian batsman should have a reason to take a moderate chase like this down to the last over. One can only imagine what Gautam Gambhir has to say about this.
There have actually been quite a few occasions over the last three years in which the once master finisher Dhoni has made a mess out of seemingly doable chases. The reason it looks worse when he fails is his method of doing it – clinically taking it down to the end. This leaves no other batsman any room for error, including himself. So if he doesn’t last the full quota of the chase, till the final over, it usually curtains for the lower order too. Clearly, they can’t be expected to chase down anything more than 10 off the last over, as seen in Antigua. Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya both scored a run a ball before holing out, under pressure after Dhoni’s design. This happens very often, with Dhoni calmly playing out dots at the other end, and his partners being blamed for getting out in a rush. How else are they expected to bat when Dhoni himself wants them to be the proactive ones? When the onus comes back on him, he is exposed.
Here are some recent occasions that Indian fans will never forget:
2015, India vs South Africa
At Kanpur, India was chasing a tough score of 302. Rohit Sharma played a blinder, eventually getting out for a mammoth 150 in the 47th over, with 35 still to get off the last 20 balls. This is MS Dhoni’s domain. And bowlers like Kagiso Rabada, inexperienced back then, wouldn’t quite back themselves against a master in these circumstances. Dhoni set it up well by getting 11 off Dale Steyn, and leaving 11 to get in the final over off Rabada. Dhoni failed to hit a single boundary, managing just five runs off the first four balls, before getting out of the penultimate delivery. India lost by 5 runs, and this wasn’t a surprise anymore, given that it felt like déjà vu with Dhoni at the crease in the last over. South Africa eventually won the series 3-2. Dhoni’s final score: 31 (30).
2016, India vs West Indies, 1st T20
The series in USA went largely unnoticed by a large section of our population. It remained the only series India lost under Anil Kumble: a 2-0 T20 loss. But it was the first match that made headlines while we slept here. India almost pulled off the largest chase in T20 history, after being set a mammoth 246. Again, Rohit Sharma made it possible with a quickfire 62 (28) before KL Rahul took charge with a blistering century of his own, at a strike-rate of more than 200. Dhoni came in during the 14th over and left it to Rahul. They got it down to 8 off the last 6 balls. Everything looked perfect. Even Dwayne Bravo couldn’t defend 8, surely. Rahul had reached 110. Marlon Samuels dropped Dhoni off the first ball – which effectively, ironically, won them the match eventually. Needing a simple 2 off the last ball, Dhoni didn’t try to hit a boundary, but edged it to Samuels again. India didn’t even tie the game. They lost by a run, with Dhoni making a mess of the biggest chase in T20 history. His final score: 43 (25)
2016, India vs Zimbabwe, 1st T20
A few months before the Windies match, Dhoni batted in an identical situation, while chasing down a total of 170 in Harare. He came in at 4-90 and took singles right till the final over, when, again, it came down to 8 needed. Dhoni thought Axar Patel was timing it well, and took a single to give him strike. Patel got out, Dhoni crossed, and once again, took a single off the third delivery to give new batsman Rishi Dhawan the onus. He played out a dot, took a single, and Dhoni was left with a boundary to get off the last ball. Many would back him against a bowler like Madziva, but he managed just a double by smashing a full-length delivery on off-stump to the fielder. India lost by 2 runs. Dhoni’s final score: 19 (17)
2014, India vs England, 1st T20
During India’s doomed tour of England, Dhoni was still a recognizable and competent finisher. It showed in the way he “failed” against Chris Woakes in this match. Chasing 181, India needed 16 off the final over, not 8. Dhoni hit a six off the first ball, and finally got it down to 5 off the last 2. He looked good to do what he always did. But he refused to take a single off the penultimate ball, and managed just one off the final ball, giving England victory by 3 runs. Despite a six and a four in the final over, Dhoni had failed to take his team home. This was perhaps the beginning of the end, in ironically the format of T20 cricket – where he was perhaps the most successful franchise captain in its history. His batting though had always left much to be desired. Dhoni’s final score: 27 (18).