Comment: The Curious Case Of Mahendra Singh Dhoni
India v Australia - second Test, Hyderabad
Amit Masram opens the debate about where Mahendra Singh Dhoni should bat following his brilliant double-century in Chennai.
How things change quickly in Indian cricket. Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni had been under the scanner and copped flak from media and past players alike for India’s abject Test record in recent times.
Under immense pressure against England to deliver the goods, with India trailing 2-1 in the series, came the uncharacteristic knock of 99 - battling for 398 minutes, consuming 248 balls - on an insipid surface in Nagpur.
This was then followed up by a belligerent 224 against the Australians, the highest individual score by an Indian wicket-keeper to script an eight-wicket victory in the series opener in Chennai. As a result, it seems like a renaissance for Dhoni the batsman.
The splendid counter-attacking double-century in a single day of the opening Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy has sparked an interesting debate on Dhoni's batting position in the Test line-up.
Wicket-keepers are a prized commodity and former Australian glove-man Adam Gilchrist rewrote the definition of wicket-keeping with audacious stokeplay in the early 2000s, often changing the course of Test matches for Australia; one of several reasons why Australia sustained its domination over a long period of time.
The bar was reset and often wicket-keeper-batsmen now have a broader role with the bat in the longest format of the game in addition to their normal duties behind the stumps. Dhoni also captains the side as well as donning the gloves behind the stumps.
Interestingly, Dhoni entered the scene as an explosive wicket-keeper-batsman with twin hundreds (148 against Pakistan at Visakhapatnam and 183 not out against Sri Lanka respectively batting at number three in 2005). These performances not only cemented his place in the one-day side but also pitch-forked him into the Test team as the first choice wicket-keeper.
As time flew, with World Cups in two different formats to his name, alacrity between the wickets, an ability to seize singles at will and to produce the big shots when the situation demands, consistently scoring runs against all opponents, Dhoni has arguably transformed himself into a modern batting great in the ODI format (7,259 runs in 219 games at an average of 51.85, including eight hundreds and 48 half-centuries with a strike rate of 88.22)
However, he is still unable to come to terms with the Test format - evidenced by a below par average of 38.9 in Test cricket accruing 4,107 runs after 74 Test caps. The recent resurgence in Dhoni's batting poses the fascinating question: why has he failed to take off as a batsman at the Test level?
The 31-year-old has only scored two of his six Test tons batting at number six, including his recent career best of 224, while a Test century overseas continues to elude him. The promotion to the number six slot has reaped 841 runs in 11 Tests for Dhoni at an average of 76.45 including two tons and five half-centuries.
With his recent success, has the time come for Dhoni to permanently occupy the number six slot in the batting order? The answer is far from convincing. In stark contrast to an impressive home record of 2,232 runs in 37 Tests at 47.48, his overseas record is poorer, with 1,875 runs from an equal number of Tests at 33.48 - clearly a strong indicator of the kind of surfaces and conditions he succeeds and excels in.
All six centuries from Dhoni’s blade have come at a higher strike rate than normal Test match standards, batting in the sub-continent, where the ball seldom bounces above the knee and is devoid of swing and seam movement.
Moreover, it is possible that Dhoni may never have found the best pace to bat in Tests, often unsure of whether to go with his shots or to construct an innings playing the waiting game like most Test batsmen do. This was further exacerbated by the fact he mostly bats with the tail or comes in when the second new ball is due.
Unsure footwork and a tendency to poke at balls outside the off stump have increased his vulnerability as well as his natural stroke-making ability, creating errors in shot selection.
Also, batting way too low in the order, when most times he has only the company of the bowlers makes it even harder to score runs. These factors explain his ordinary numbers with the bat at the Test level.
However, captaining a side which is undergoing transition is not easy, without even considering the intense media scrutiny is is under as Dhoni is trying to bring his team back to winning ways. No wonder his record is not that great. Yet Dhoni the batsman needs to fire consistently in addition to being tidy behind the wickets.
India go to South Africa to play a three-Test series in November this year as well as to New Zealand in early 2014. That Dhoni averages 53.28 when India win is a significant statistic in a traditionally good batting side, with the frontline batsman expected to score the bulk of the runs.
Pundits will keep an eye on runs coming from Dhoni‘s blade in these important trips. Then perhaps it will be a much better time to assess if number six is the correct position for him in the longest format of the game and judge whether he will ever realise his true potential.
© Cricket World 2013
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