“Personally I feel I use a bit too much of my brain in this format.” That’s MS Dhoni, giving a rare, fascinating insight into the mind of arguably the best finisher in ODI cricket, and also revealing a bit about the shortest format of the game, T20.
Of late Dhoni has failed more than he has succeeded, and this could perhaps be a case of a thinking batsman trying in vain to eliminate luck from a format where luck plays a big part, trying to perfect an art that cannot be perfected, and trying all this in the twilight of his career, when his eye and instinct are diminishing, although his legs are still just as strong.
If finishing matches is a gunfight, Dhoni has always wanted to win clinically, shedding as little blood as possible. Delay pulling the trigger, keep moving closer, corner your opponent, then go bang. Which is to say, take the game deep, don’t risk losing it by going for the big hit too early, and then back yourself in a one-on-one situation in the final over. It’s not that Dhoni necessarily wants to take the game to the last over or the last ball, but he doesn’t want to play low-percentage cricket early; he wants to wait for a mistake from the bowler and then pounce on it.
This trait is borne out of habit and a sense of responsibility. From his young days, Dhoni has conditioned himself to come back unbeaten from chases. In any pursuit, you want to leave as little as possible to chance. Dhoni the captain in the field is known to gamble in limited-overs cricket, but with the bat, with more things in his control than when setting fields for error-prone bowlers, he is too proud to swing early and hope for the best.
“If I play so many balls, I am going to finish this game,” he used to tell his coaches. Once, in his second proper year in international cricket, he played an irresponsible shot in a paltry chase in Jaipur, exposing low-on-confidence batsmen and giving India squeaky bums.
He told the coach, Greg Chappell, he would never do that again. That, and the absence of big-hitting allrounders behind him – or at least that’s how he sees it – makes him keep the big shots for the end. So untrusting of others under pressure is he that in Birmingham two years ago he farmed the strike in Ambati Rayudu’s company with 17 required off seven balls. India lost by three runs.
Contrast this with the time he needed 23 off the last over in an IPL game in Visakhapatnam. There were no calculations required here. No brain to be used. He knew the non-striking batsman, R Ashwin, couldn’t do it, so he farmed the strike and just hit hard with nothing to lose. He won.
With eight required in the last over in Harare, Dhoni trusted Axar Patel and Rishi Dhawan. In fact, it seemed Dhoni might have asked the youngsters to have a go, looking to bat through himself. It showed in how Axar lofted Neville Madziva to long-off, and in how Rishi swung wildly.
In Dhoni’s mind, this game perhaps reaffirmed the merit of getting close with relatively risk-free cricket before playing the big shots. “Quite a few of the batsmen were set, they were batting well, and at some point of time, especially when you are chasing targets, it is important to take it till the end and then look to play the shots,” Dhoni said. “That was something that was lacking in this game.”