Is there madness in Dhoni's method?
More than his brand-building, cringe-making Captain Cool persona, Dhoni's tenure as skipper has been secure, rival-proof, and therefore wrinkle-free.
There is an advert seen on Indian television these days that has celebrities of varying significance egging on the Indian team in the World Cup. The Hindi tagline at the end says, "Team aise nahin jeet ti, jitaana padtaa hai." Translated that means, "The team doesn't win just like that, you've got to make it win." It is meant for India's fans - as if they needed to be told to put the weight of their will behind MS Dhoni's squad. Should Dhoni turn his attention away from his favourite off-field pastime of video-gaming and watch the advert, it might sound like an instruction directed at him as well.
Dhoni has spent a relatively unharried four years in charge of India, or at least he has been careful to ensure it looks that way. More than his brand-building, cringe-making Captain Cool persona, Dhoni's tenure as skipper has been secure, rival-proof, and therefore wrinkle-free. Now, suddenly, over the course of a few weeks of the World Cup, creases are beginning to show both in the Indian team and its captain. India's World Cup is still alive, but already gloomy calculations are being made as to how their place in the quarter-finals is actually not secure. For the first time since his oxygen-depleting ascent, neither is Dhoni's as captain. On Sunday against West Indies in Chennai, he will be watched closer than he has been in a long time.
As startling as Dhoni's message may have been to his batsmen who played "for the crowd" on Saturday, it has not surprised them. Nor has it sent them, the India faithful will be relieved to hear, into despair or doubt. It is what Dhoni's modus operandi has always been: to speak directly, briefly and non-confrontationally to players; let them know what he believes needs to be done. In media briefings he does most of the same, but can frequently be snippy. Always, though, he will laboriously explain why he changed the batting or bowling order, chose to bat or chase, and then offer philosophical observations about hybrid fuel and life jackets.
At the World Cup, Dhoni's captaincy has been under the cosh for a set of reasons: in larger terms, it has to do with selection, like in the Piyush Chawla case. In smaller measure, decisions in Nagpur about changes in the batting order, and giving Ashish Nehra the final over. Until now Dhoni's has been captaincy by instinct over method, his own school of reasoning, and like with most captains once they gain greater control of their team, a healthy dose of obstinacy. In the last four years of his captaincy in the short game, if Dhoni had to be asked what was India's best ODI performance under his leadership, he would be choosing between the early CB Series win of 2008, an Asia Cup victory, or bilateral series wins in New Zealand and West Indies. Not such a tough choice, is it?
Now Dhoni's decisions, made using both reason and instinct, are backfiring often because their basic premises may be incorrect. Why should the cotton-woolling of Chawla not be interpreted as cricket's version of babysitting? Dhoni said Chawla had been picked to play in Delhi against Netherlands, because "basically you have to see which was the player that needed this game most, rather than the team needing the player". Or how about No. 4 being Virat Kohli's sacrosanct spot, before or after which he should ideally not be sent? Kohli is 22. Should he not be running loose wherever and whenever he is sent? Yuvraj Singh has spent all but 41 matches of his ODI career flitting between Nos. 4, 5 and 6, Rahul Dravid has kept wicket in ODIs, Sourav Ganguly broke one of the most successful ODI partnerships for India to go down to No. 3, Virender Sehwag went from being a middle-order batsman to an opener who has redefined the Test-match art itself.
To move Yusuf Pathan up the order in a match against one of the best attacks in the World Cup on a wicket that was stopping was again based on a formula that the openers had given the platform and the pace of the innings needed to be amped up. The decision that had to be taken was which among the "explosive power" hitters Dhoni had spoken about would be able to do the job required: Yuvraj, Kohli, Dhoni or Pathan. Against Ireland, Pathan (30 off 24 balls, two fours three sixes) was pitch perfect. Against Dale Steyn in the Powerplay, he should have been the last option. Like all captains Dhoni also has his players of choice who are given more licence, and his team recognises instinctively who those players are. Unfortunately for Dhoni his captaincy has not coincided with the discovery of new match-winners, like those found under Sourav Ganguly, for example.
When a captain's instinct starts to head off in a direction where things do not go the way he wants, they sometimes overwhelm and undermine reason. A random example being not letting Harbhajan Singh immediately at JP Duminy, who has been dismissed by him three times in Tests in single digits. Four overs from the pacemen passed, Duminy put up 19 off 14 before Harbhajan came on. Immediately Duminy's runs dried up and he was out off Harbhajan's sixth ball to him.
The decision between Nehra and Harbhajan Singh became a 50-50 toss-up, with the spinner offering to bowl the 49th so that the team's most nerveless bowler, Zaheer Khan, could send down the 50th. If the 49th goes well - like it did for the Indians against South Africa in Nagpur, where Zaheer conceded four - the man bowling the 50th at least has a buffer. So far it had gone to Dhoni's plan. Nehra was the moment Dhoni gambled, because he has been India's best ODI bowler over the last year, the go-to man at the death. In Rajkot last year Nehra bowled the 50th against a rampaging Angelo Mathews with 11 needed off the last over to go past India's 414. He conceded five off the first three balls and took Mathews' wicket with the fourth.
Nehra has bowled the final over for India four times in his career, the two now forgotten instances being Karachi, the first ODI of the electric 2004 India-Pakistan series and against West Indies in a 2005 tri-series in Colombo, which took India to the final. Nagpur was the first time India lost. Before the World Cup he had taken 73 wickets (62 in ODIs and 13 in Twenty20s) since his comeback into the Indian team in June 2009. Why should Dhoni not have gone to him? Other than the fact that he may not have been warmed up not having bowled for 12 overs. It was a logical gamble that didn't work. Pathan and Chawla are the illogical gambles - they were perhaps doomed to tank.
As much as Dhoni wants his batsmen to "curb their instincts", it is the best time for his leadership to internalise the same message. Since his debut for India in 2004, he has changed his batting to eliminate risk (as if we haven't noticed that the cola-patented "helicopter shot" is not to be seen these days), yet he will not bat higher up the order as Ganguly repeatedly beseeches him to do in both commentary and column. He has a better average and 100-plus strike rate batting at either No. 3 or 4, but has done so in only 32 of 162 innings. His keeping has vastly improved from the 2007 version, and he still remains one of India's better runners between wickets. The match versus West Indies may have to mark the moment that his leadership evolves in a different direction. Or it could take a route he would rather not contemplate.