Monday, September 17, 2007
Dhoni steals the whimper
One tie and one loss. Maybe it's too early to give the thumbs down to Dhoni, but what I've seen so far has done little to dispel the gut feeling I had about his potential as captain. But first the positives. He looked calm and determined, batted well under pressure against Pakistan and gave India a chance to win. He chose to field after winning the toss, which gave India an advantage against the Kiwis although it was frittered away. That brings us to the negatives. Dhoni said in an interview in England after his appointment as India's T20 captain that he had been paying attention to the captain's moves as Dravid's deputy and therefore felt prepared. Perhaps if he had paid more attention to the results of those moves, he might have avoided repeating them. India is again playing with five fulltime bowlers, two wicketkeepers, and four batsmen, just like at the start of the England series. Dravid was forced to abandon this composition midway through that series, and I hope Dhoni follows suit soon in South Africa. India just doesn't seem to get it. In general, the standard lineup of six batsmen, a wicketkeeper, and four fulltime bowlers, with two part-time bowlers from among the batsmen completing the fifth bowler's quota, works best whether it is Test cricket, or 50-50, or T20. There may be a case for flexibility in this but that would be rare. One of the reasons the Australians have been the most successful team for so long is that they keep things simple. India underutilised its bowling resources, by not giving Sehwag a single over so far, and ran out of batting resources in both the games. Surely Sehwag is as accomplished a bowler as a Jayasuriya or a Symonds. It seems tempting to play five fulltime bowlers because you feel four or five batsmen should be enough to see through just 20 overs. That's not how it works, because the need to get going from the word go and take more risks means wickets will fall more rapidly than in 50-50. The point is to maximise one's batting and bowling resources, and the 6-1-4 format works best for that, which is why you'll hardly ever see an Aussie team deviating from that tried and tested formula. This means the best batsman on the bench, presumably Rohit Sharma, should replace the worst of the fulltime bowlers, predictably Ajit Agarkar. How could Dhoni have entrusted in him the penultimate over against Pakistan after seeing his performance in England? He gave away 17 runs in that over and almost gave away that match. When Dhoni repeated that mistake in the next match, where Agarkar gave 21 runs in the penultimate over to the Kiwis, I could only surmise that here was somebody who was just going through the motions as captain, looking calm and confident, but basically doing everything that his predecessor had done, including handing the ball to Yuvraj in the death overs. Yuvraj we have seen simply does not have an escape route when a batsman throws caution to the winds and goes after him. In fact he just makes it worse by bowling faster and faster, instead of perhaps slowing it down, aiming for the blockhold or an armer. But then he's a part-timer who should only be bowling in the middle overs, not the 50th over in one-day cricket or the 18th over of a T20. Those are captaincy blunders, and I haven't even come to Dhoni's biggest blunder, which was also strangely enough one of Dravid's old failings in limited overs cricket. I think what really lost the game against the Kiwis was Dhoni's 24 runs in 20 balls. That was 7 runs an over, when the asking rate was 9.5 an over, and it came after India had already got off to a fantastic start, had lost only two wickets and was well on track. In fact, under his influence Gambhir too started playing for singles and lost his momentum. It also made little sense to me to disturb the in-form Yuvraj's batting position. On the evidence so far, I have even more doubts now whether Dhoni will make even a half-decent captain. Would Yuvraj have been better? Who knows? It's not as if we need a brilliant tactician as captain, we just need somebody who will get the simple things right, such as the decision to bat or bowl after winning the toss, the team composition, the batting order and the rotation of bowlers. If we have no such person in India, then we should at least hurry up and find an astute coach with a good track record. India has the richest cricket board and yet is the only country to field a team in the competition without a coach. Even the Zimbabwe and Bangladesh players are better served in this respect than ours.