Did India Miss a Trick by Saving MS Dhoni for Too Late?

India are 5/3 in the World Cup semi-finals at Manchester chasing 240 for a win and the wicket-keeper batsman walks out to the middle. The first 20 balls are all dots.

The ball is moving around, the Kiwis bowlers have their tails up but the wicket-keeper batsman is unfazed. He hits a four and a couple soon after the 20 dots and then edges one to point where Jimmy Neesham pulls off the catch of the tournament.

But wait, that wasn’t MS Dhoni at no 5 for India. It was Dinesh Karthik. In walks Hardik Pandya next and Rishabh Pant, the occupant at no 4, and Hardik put on a crucial 47-run stand.

Kane Williamson is now looking to tempt Pant into a mistake. He has Mitchell Santner turning the ball into Pant and inviting him to go over deep mid-wicket. Pant resists the urge initially but you can see he is fidgety.

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After four dots, Pant is clearly restless and Pandya stands his ground at the non-striker’s end, awaiting his turn. The brashness gets to Pant eventually and he holes out to the deep after a well-fought 32.

A significant contribution considering the match situation but where’s the man who would have calmed his nerves down after those four dots?

Jadeja and Dhoni’s Stand

He walks in at no 7, a position Dhoni hasn’t occupied since his golden duck in Nagpur against Australia earlier in the year. He is clearly seen as an experienced player with waning powers.

He isn’t a finisher anymore. He isn’t capable of towing those big targets with bludgeoning sixes. Dhoni knows that, the Indian management know that, the fans know that, the world knows that.

But when he walks in at no. 7, India need 6.23 runs per over to win the game. A gentle reminder that the required rate was 5.15 when India were 24/4 and tottering after Dinesh Karthik’s dismissal.

Ravindra Jadeja (R) and Mahendra Singh Dhoni during match between India and New Zealand at Old Trafford in Manchester.

Dhoni doesn’t win these kinds of matches anymore. The rate is beyond his reach so he trusts in Ravindra Jadeja to do the scoring. He does what he does best now – occupy the crease and stop the flow of wickets. The runs still come at a questionable strike rate and if Jadeja had fallen early, India would most likely have folded for a total below 150.

But Jadeja – buoyed by a few tweets perhaps – is on top of his batting game. He single-handedly takes India close. Let’s repeat that.

SINGLE-HANDEDLY takes India close.

His partnership with Dhoni tallies up to 116 runs in 17.2 overs – a rate of 6.74. Jadeja scores at 7.83 runs per over in the partnership. Dhoni’s contribution is 39 runs in 45 balls with one four.

What he has done, however, is given Jadeja the base to launch his attack – there is constant communication, nods of approval or disapproval and assurance that no matter what, Dhoni’s end is sealed.

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Dhoni gives zero chances. He has played just 5% false shots according to CricViz, the least by any batsman in the entire match; a match where Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli were all dismissed for one inside the first four overs.

Dhoni’s Role in The Team

Jadeja’s mistimed slog and Dhoni’s run out seals India’s World Cup. But if there’s a smidgen of regret to be had, it should be in not using Dhoni for the one role he is in the team for. The former skipper has coped a large amount of criticism in this World Cup for his inability to rotate strike or take on bowlers in the death.

He has been riding through such criticism for the past couple of years with Virat Kohli and the management playing the ‘experience card’ to bail him out numerous times.

New Zealand’s Colin de Grandhomme celebrates the run-out of India’s MS Dhoni.

But the one role Dhoni has thrived in is when India lose their top-order, a rare occurrence given the form of their top three, but a possible one indeed as a few instances in New Zealand showed earlier in the year.

Take his 54 at North Sound in 2017 when India were 47/3 or his 65 at Dharamsala against Sri Lanka in 2017 when he walked in at 16/4 or his 51 at Sydney in 2019 when India were 4/3. The constant here is that Dhoni makes runs when others in the top-order don’t.

This trend – a firefighting quality that grew as his hair length shortened – began in 2012 when he resurrected India’s innings at Chennai against Pakistan from 29/5 to 227 with a splendid 113. He carried it forward to Cuttack in 2017 against England when he and Yuvraj Singh got hundreds after India were 25/3 at one point.

Also Read: India Never Had a ‘Plan B’ for Top-Order Failure & That Cost Them

Yes, there are occasions when Dhoni looks all at sea at the crease. He struggles to milk the spinners and the scoreboard barely moves when he walks in early. But what he does give you is a guarantee that at the end of the commotion, he is still out there; something Dinesh Karthik, despite his 25-ball blockathon, failed to do; something that

Rishabh Pant, despite his matured leaves, couldn’t manage; something that Hardik Pandya, despite restraining and containing his instincts for long, couldn’t do for long enough.

The ball possibly swung and seamed for 8-10 overs upfront. New Zealand made the most of it by devouring the top-order.

At 24/4, or even before that, Dhoni should have walked in to bring some calm to the storm. India were capitulating and the ship needed some steadying.

The one man who could do it that infallibly was watching the action until the 23rd over. When he did walk in, all he had were two all-rounders, the tail and a soaring required run rate.

New Zealand players greet Indian players after the match at Old Trafford. 

“Forty-five minutes of bad cricket knocked us out,” Kohli waxed eloquent in the post-match presentation ceremony. Those minutes of madness included the horrendous call to hide their former skipper. Had Dhoni come in at no. 4 or at least no. 5, he could have given India a whiff at chasing this down.

He could have instilled sense into the muddled brain of Rishabh Pant. He might have played out 20 dots like Karthik did but more often than not he comes out unscathed from the ruckus.

This was Dhoni’s game and Dhoni’s chase. This was one situation – there aren’t many anymore – that India sorely needed Dhoni. And they opted to play into New Zealand’s hands by hiding him at no 7.

(Rohit Sankar is a freelance cricket writer. He can be reached at @imRohit_SN)

(This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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