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Bring back the helicopter shot

August 05, 2011

When the going gets tough in the field of play, Mahendra Singh Dhoni retains his uber cool body language. At the most, he gives a wry smile or covers the lower part of his face with his keeping gloves. But other telltale signs emerge during his post-match interviews. In them, Dhoni becomes verbose, rambles interminably about what could/should have been. You know then that a natural leader is reserving his true emotions for the dressing room.

It takes a lot for Dhoni to reach this mental state. His team must perform disastrously (like on the current tour of England) even as he, simultaneously, finds himself blinking in front of the stumps and behind them.

Dhoni has finally lost two Tests in a row as captain and faces the threat of losing a legacy that isn’t his alone – India attained the #1 spot in Tests thanks to a fighting spirit that first manifested itself during the 2003 tour Down Under. Since then, the team inched up the ladder under Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble and, finally, Dhoni. Surely Dhoni doesn’t want to be the guy who presides over the slide – as Ponting would readily tell him!

So much for the big picture. Now let’s get to the elephant in the room – Dhoni’s indifferent form as a batsman over the past couple of years. This elephant has been harrumphing and dropping pancakes of hot dung, but few have noticed it because Dhoni, the captain, has been doing spectacularly well. He has emerged triumphant in a World Cup and a World Twenty20 Championship, won almost every series for the country, both home and overseas, and earned the respect of his staunchest detractors. Indeed, when he promoted himself up the order during the 2011 World Cup final and went on to play the innings of his life, he became the pin-up boy of not just cricket lovers but also the corporate world. This is what leadership is all about: taking responsibility, fighting it out and seeing the task through. Those of us who had endured the heartbreak of the 2003 World Cup finale appreciated it even more. That nightmare, we told ourselves, was before Dhoni arrived on the scene. It won’t happen under him.

But even as I danced that wonderful night away in the streets of Mumbai in the company of total strangers, I wondered: ‘Where did that innings come from? When was the last time the blighter played like this?’

Mahendra Singh Dhoni – Statistics                        Courtesy: CricInfo Tests

  Innings Not Outs Runs Average 100s 50s Strike Rate (%)
Overall 91 9 3071 37.45 4 21 59.18
Before 2010-11 70 9 2556 41.9 4 18 60.69
2010-11 12 0 369 30.75 0 2 57.83
2011 9 0 146 16.22 0 1 42.94
ODIs
  Innings Not Outs Runs Average 100s 50s Strike Rate (%)
Overall 166 42 6049 48.78 7 38 87.53
Before 2010 152 39 5733 51.13 7 35 89.86
2010 9 2 313 44.71 0 2 68.49
2010-11 14 3 316 28.72 0 1 74.88
When indeed? Does the man himself recall? His slump in form as a batsman has been imperceptible. Glacial. It all began, I think, due to a seemingly unrelated incident following India’s tour of England in 2007.

Despite scoring 92 runs off 63 balls in the second ODI of that tour, Rahul Dravid was cruelly dropped as not just the captain but also a player of the ODI team. This exclusion was precipitated by India’s unexpected triumph in the inaugural T20 World Cup – Dhoni had taken a youthful group of mavericks and converted them into world beaters. He deservedly became the skipper of the ODI side as well and Dravid eventually became a ‘test specialist’ in the Indian ranks.

The question was: who would be the new Dravid? Gifted though the Indian batting line-up was – with the likes of Gambhir, Sehwag, Yuvraj, Rohit and Raina – it would have been evident to the new captain that all of them were stroke-makers. None, except Gambhir, was a natural in the ship-steadying business. So, like a true leader, Dhoni decided to be the grown-up. Perhaps he had searched deep within and discovered that he liked caution. Perhaps the role, once assumed, became his own. Either ways, Dhoni played this role superbly, winning us a string of ODI series. Over the next couple of years, he walked in at number 3, 4, 5, 6 or even 7, and did the job. Especially on the half-crumbling, half-sleeping sub-continental pitches. This was run-a-ball Dhoni. A half-century without a single boundary. Or 70 in 65 balls.

Or 80 in 70 balls. The one aberration to this glorious run was an ODI we lost with Dhoni returning to the pavilion, not out, after a long innings. It had been a reasonable, run-a-ball innings, but India had needed more. That evening, I cindered the memories of his early batting. I concluded that his Nagpur blitzkrieg, his mind-numbing assault on the Aussies and Pakistanis, are unrepeatable acts. Recent history suggests that I wasn’t rash in reaching this conclusion. In fact, I’d go to the extent of stating that, for the past four years, Dhoni has resembled a Ferrari driving on the slow lane.

All that wasted horsepower is now being reflected in the statistics. Dhoni has acquired a confused identity as a batsman. Having reined in his natural aggression, the Jharkhand juggernaut is desperately clinging to an artificial groove that seemed to fit him for a while. Doesn’t work that way. Batting – more so aggressive batting – is predominantly about pre-programmed hand-eye coordination. The body takes over, the retinas make the muscles move, the ball disappears. Not much to do with mental strength. (That plays a role between deliveries, when the body is fidgeting.) In Dhoni’s case, the mind and body are no longer engaged in sublime coupling. He knows this quite well. Why else would he bat so much down the order, whether playing for the Indian team or even the Superkings? Other than the World Cup final, he hasn’t promoted himself up the order in the recent past. Go figure.

It’s all very well for us to say that he has a glaringly flawed technique. That he can’t handle the rising or swinging ball. But then, legendary batsmen do not necessarily have impeccable techniques. They just make their flawed techniques work for them. And Dhoni is eminently capable of doing the same. He’s capable of introspection, delving deep into the recesses of his mind where uber-cool solutions exist. In this labyrinth, he might find a shiny post-it that says: be thyself.

If he follows that dictum, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll witness the return of that flamboyant, liberating, rotor-motion known in the cricketing world as the ‘helicopter shot.’

Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.