MS ‘Show Dhoni’ the chess master still has a few India moves yet to make

Dileep Premachandran writes that while MS Dhoni 'will be the one-time favourite uncle, popping into the dressing room only occasionally' this season, he still has a bit of good cricket yet to give.
MS Dhoni captained India last week in the Twenty20 matches against the West Indies in the United States. Lynne Sladky / AP Photo / August 28, 2016
MS Dhoni captained India last week in the Twenty20 matches against the West Indies in the United States. Lynne Sladky / AP Photo / August 28, 2016

Sometimes, actions on the cricket field give entirely the wrong notion about the protagonist. So it was with MS Dhoni early on in his international career.

In March 2006, India and England were playing the third and final Test of a series in Mumbai. Dhoni had established himself in the side just a year earlier, and his first-innings 64 had been one of the highlights of a disappointing Indian performance.

By the time he came to the crease on the final afternoon, with India 77 for 6 in pursuit of 313, the gig was as good as up. The sixth ball he faced was edged to the slip cordon, where Owais Shah grassed a tough chance. Cue circumspection? Not a bit of it.

Shaun Udal, all of 37 and playing his fourth and last Test, decided to tempt Dhoni with some offerings on off stump. The first heave-ho went off the edge all the way to long-off. Monty Panesar, running helter-skelter, seemed to lose the ball in the sun, and there was mirth in the stands as the chance went down.

Two balls later, Dhoni sashayed down the pitch and played the same shot. Again, it flew off the outside edge and down the ground. This time, Panesar, despite imitating a newborn foal with his movements, held on. Dhoni tucked bat under arm and strode briskly off. Up in the press box, an English journalist gave him a new nickname – Show Dhoni, to rhyme with show pony. With his coiffured mane and love of fast bikes, it appeared to be apt.

Two weeks later, Dhoni calmly finished off a run chase that saw India take an unassailable lead in the seven-match ODI series. Later, sitting by the side of the backwaters in Kochi, Greg Chappell – then India’s coach – spoke about the wicketkeeper-batsman he rated so highly, and the shot he had played in Mumbai.

“MS doesn’t play recklessly,” he told me. “It may have looked that way to onlookers, but he would have worked out that his best chance of staying there was to see off the spinner with a few big shots. Few are as good as he is at assessing a match situation.”

In the years since, Chappell has been proven right innumerable times. A year after the Mumbai debacle, India went to England and won a Test series 1-0. The key to that result was the draw in the first Test, when India had to bat through the final day to save the game. The most crucial contribution was an unbeaten 75 from Show Dhoni.

These days, the 35-year-old Dhoni no longer plays Tests, and the long gaps between limited-overs games means endless debate over his future. India have played 23 Twenty20 internationals since Dhoni gave up the Test keeping gloves, and in those his average (43.83) and strike-rate (146.92) are way above what they were earlier in this career. In 22 ODI innings in the same period, his average has dipped to 38.21, but the strike-rate is unaffected.

But it’s not numbers that stick in the public memory, it’s the moments.

Dhoni the limited-overs legend was a consummate finisher, a man who would stretch the chase out to the last before applying the full stop. Twice in recent months, that method has failed him. Once in Zimbabwe, with an inexperienced side, and then in Lauderhill last weekend against the reigning T20 world champions.

He’s fitter than he was a couple of years ago, but the fours and sixes don’t cascade off the bat as they once did. The Test team has moved on and is flourishing under Virat Kohli’s leadership. This season, Dhoni will be like the one-time favourite uncle, popping into the dressing room only occasionally as India play out a gruelling schedule of 13 home Tests.

But those that want him gone before he feels his time is up would do well to reflect on what Chappell said more than a decade ago. Dhoni will fail from time to time, but few men give themselves as much of a chance of success.

Behind every stroke is a chess player’s brain, working out what lies several combinations ahead.

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Published: September 3, 2016 04:00 AM

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