| Part Bheem, part Eklavya
How good is Dhoni' Itís an important question for Indian cricket, both in the short term and the foreseeable future. We have the World Cup coming up and with Tendulkar in transition, Sehwag out of sorts, an untried Uthappa, and Yuvraj returning from injury, the team depends almost solely on Dhoni for batting momentum. In the long term, Adam Gilchrist and Kumar Sangakkara have demonstrated that wicket-keeper-batsmen are the pivots on which modern teams move.
So how good is he' Iíve swung between scepticism and admiration. In the beginning, when he scored those two mammoth centuries, the 148 in Visakhapatnam and the 181 in Jaipur, I was taken by the confident brutality of his style. But to score a lot of runs in one-day cricket on dead wickets against moderate opposition isnít always a sign of exceptional talent.
What stood out from the beginning was Dhoniís confident poise, the fact that he played from the start like an adult. This is an odd thing to say because international cricket is a grown-up business, but Dhoni never looked the young debutant, he never seemed tentative. He seemed to know what his business was and went about it with a calm self-possession that contrasted nicely with the violence of his methods. This might have had something to do with his apprenticeship in first-class cricket, which was a relatively long one. He had played five years of first-class cricket when he was selected to represent India. He was 23, which isnít an early debut in the context of Indian cricket today, where an international cricketerís career can begin (and often end) before heís 21. No eagle-eyed Imran Khan or Arjuna Ranatunga plucked him from obscurity ó Dhoni is a self-made man who forced the selectors to look his way.
Indian teams are organized around codes of deference: Ďjuniorí players behave a certain way around Ďseniorí players; they call them bhai. Dhoni, like Sehwag, doesnít fit into that mould. There doesnít seem to be a deferential bone in his body. I could find reasons for this: his self-propelled journey from the ranks, his staggering list of endorsements, his status as a bona fide star. But these are the consequences of the reassurance that he radiates, not its cause. As a fan, I know that what draws spectators to Dhoni is the sense that this spectacular, risk-taking hero isnít a death-and-glory kamikaze pilot as Srikkanth used to be, nor flamboyantly careless with a great batting gift as Kapil was, but is, remarkably, wholly in charge of his talent.
What kind of talent is it' When he reprised his one-day 148 in the second test against Pakistan in 2005-06, I began to wonder if he was a Gilchrist-sized gift to Indian cricket. All right, so it was a featherbed of a pitch and, to put Dhoniís century in perspective, Shahid Afridi got a bigger century in fewer balls, but a big 100 against the old enemy early in a test career always seems a portent of good things. But after that high-voltage start, Dhoniís performances tailed off. There have been a couple of fifties along the way and a few starts, but nothing out of the ordinary, and his test-match average has stabilized at around 30.
So were our expectations inflated, and is he one more make-weight wicketkeeper-batsman to remind us of the decline that has set in since the glory days of Kunderan, Engineer and Kirmani' Kirmani has weighed in with some criticism: he thinks Dhoni rises too early to receive the ball, that he tends to be balanced on his heels, not his toes. In short, he sees Dhoni as an illustration of the way in which wicket-keeping technique has declined because contemporary teams tend to look for batsmen who can keep a bit, not for excellence with the big gloves on.
Kirmani may well be right in his reading of modern team-selection, but Dhoniís record in test matches, both as a batsman and as a keeper, is respectable. From all accounts, he kept well in the West Indies and as a batsman his average after 15 tests is just a fraction lower than Kunderanís and Engineerís, both of whom finished their careers with averages in the low thirties. He seems, in fact, very much in their mould: a ferocious batsman capable, intermittently, of playing decisive innings. His batting record compares very well with that of every other Indian keeper in recent times. Kirmani, admired for his tenacity as a lower-order batsman, has a batting average of around 27, and was clearly the more limited stroke-maker. Mongia, who once scored 150 against the Australians, comes in at under 25 as does his main rival for the wicketkeeper-batsman slot in the present team, Dinesh Karthik.
In an international context, Dhoni is clearly inferior as a test batsman when you compare him to Kumar Sangakkara (who averages more than 50 runs per innings) or Gilchrist (who averages just under 50). Set against his Pakistani counterpart, the talented Kamran Akmal, Dhoni does surprisingly well: he has a better test average and is, by some distance, the better one-day performer.
Respectable though Dhoniís test record is, his main claim on our attention as a batsman has been his one-day record. He scores at nearly 100 runs per 100 balls and still manages to be consistent at a very high level: he has the staggering, Tendulkaresque average of 45. And while his two centuries against Pakistan and Sri Lanka came early in his career, there has been no falling off in his one-day career, where he has regularly racked up important fifties.
What do these figures add up to' Itís important to ask to understand why Dhoni has captured the Indian imagination in the way he has and secondly, so as to be able to speculate rationally on what heís likely to deliver.
Dhoni makes our collective pulse race not only because heís aggressive, but because his aggression exhibits itself in shots Iíve never seen anyone else play. I can think of three shots unique to Dhoni. The first, and least, of them is the peculiar flip-shot that he plays where he lays the bat-face up on the pitch and tips the ball over his shoulder in the direction of long-leg. The second one is the forcing shot he plays square on the off-side, with both feet off the ground, his legs scissoring to make momentum in mid-air. Itís a viscerally savage shot that, besides violating every reasonable rule of batsmanship, tries, in passing, to break the law of gravity. The third Dhoni special is the strangest shot of all: when heís served up a yorker- or a near-yorker-length delivery, he essays a two-handed top-spin forehand which is intended not just to dig out the ball but also to whip it to the mid-wicket boundary. More often than not the shot doesnít come off: its significance lies in his determination to invent a shot with which to attack the unplayable ball.
Dhoni is an interesting batsman because his aggression is wholly based on improvisation. He plays like a pioneering backwoodsman who has had to invent batsmanship without instruction. In the best sense of that phrase, Dhoniís technique is home-made. Sometimes this is frustrating: he often gets out playing eccentric shots when an ordinary drive or flick would do; nothing that Dhoni plays, in attack or defence, belongs to the orthodox repertoire. Allied to this improvisatory technique is a degree of pre-meditation unusual in cricket at the highest level. One of the reasons he does better in the shorter form of the game is that ODI bowling is more predictable and less various than bowling in test cricket. Also, thereís more short-pitched bowling in tests, and some of his dismissals have raised a question mark about his technique against the short ball.
The reason I think Dhoni is cut out for great things as a batsman, unlike, say, an Afridi, is his willingness to subordinate aggression to a larger plan. Dhoni has shown an ability to choose his moment, to commit himself to percentage cricket, to coast on furious singles in a crisis, instead of careening, brake-less, on adrenalin. In Indiaís victory over Sri Lanka yesterday, he hit just four boundaries in his unbeaten 66 and still managed a strike rate of 88. An enthusiastic Hindi radio commentator compared his posture before assuming his stance to Bheem, shouldering his gada or mace. Given the way heís built, his rumoured appetite for gallons of milk and the size of that bat, I can see the resemblance. Part Bheem, part Eklavya ó it isnít hard to see why heís got our attention.