In the movie MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, a teenage Dhoni persuades his coach to let him open the batting in an inter-school limited-overs match. He even convinces one of the regular openers to give up his place, and goes on to score a double-hundred. As India’s limited-overs captain, Dhoni doesn’t have to haggle for his preferred batting slot. Yet, it isn’t as simple as walking up to the coach and seeking a promotion.
Considering Dhoni’s approach has always been dictated by the match situation and the team’s requirement, his decision to bat lower is easy to understand. In nine matches, between the 2015 World Cup and the start of this series, where India had batted second, they have mounted successful chases on only four occasions, of which three came against Zimbabwe.
The role of a finisher could not be left to the younger batsmen, who are just settling into the side, so Dhoni found himself unable to move higher up the order. And when batting in the final overs, Dhoni admitted after the Mohali ODI, he “is losing his ability to rotate” the strike.
So on Sunday evening, he walked in at No. 4, more importantly as early as the ninth over, ahead of Manish Pandey. The crowd took a few seconds to process – and then go delirious over – Dhoni’s promotion. There was nothing knee-jerk about this, and it wasn’t entirely a situation-specific decision either, like at Wankhede Stadium on April 2, 2011. Instead, it became clearer over the course of India’s chase that the decision was geared towards extracting the best out of Dhoni the batsman who, when batting lower down, feels bogged down by consequences in absence of other finishers.
“We were having a conversation in the team management about the things we want to do. One of the things was for me to play free cricket,” he said after the match. “The first thing that helps [when batting at No.4] is you are only two down. It was important for me to start with a positive intent. I could have got out, but that is the risk you can afford to take if you are batting at No. 4.”
On the surface, Dhoni’s innings was moulded on a familiar template – nurdles, nudges and an overall busy presence – but he also shrugged off the inertia that had built up in recent times. It was a return to the build-before-explode space he likes to operate in.
He began with a rasping pull to backward square leg for one and then walked down the crease to disturb Trent Boult’s length. After having decided five deliveries were enough to find his bearings, he gave Tim Southee a furious charge and smacked him over midwicket.
New Zealand looked to attack him with the short ball, but Dhoni did not back down, even if he did not always manage to hit boundaries. He was temporarily bottled up by James Neesham and Mitchell Santner – moving from 10 off 12 balls to 13 off 24 – but once he smashed Neesham’s length ball over mid-off, things were quickly out of New Zealand’s control. The familiar lofts over the bowler’s head – Neesham and Santner were the worst affected – were duly reprised.
Batting at No.4, Dhoni said, freed him up to play the big shots right from the start. “It was something that I wanted to do for a long time, but if you are batting at No.5 or No.6, and especially when your top order is batting brilliantly, you don’t get to chance to bat how you want to bat,” he said.
“Often, you will get in with the last 10 or 12 overs trying to slog and trying to get as many runs as possible, or the other way round where in the 20th over maybe where you have lost five wickets and you go in to bat looking for a partnership. If it keeps happening for a long time, you don’t fluently rotate the strike. When you know there is just one batsman after you, you have to be close to 90% sure all the time when you are setting out and looking for a big hit.
“At that slot it becomes very result-oriented. That has actually hampered my batting to a great extent. Going at No.4, it was important to go and play the big shots. It was the first innings I played and I got runs, but it’s not easy to come out of it so I could have taken a few more innings. So, it’s good I got runs. Personally for me also, I am not looking too much into what needs to be done. I can play the shots over the fielder and I feel that was what was needed in my batting. Today was the first day and I am hoping to continue with this.”
The knock-on effect of Dhoni’s promotion was that two of the all-time best limited-overs batsmen spent maximum time at the crease. Dhoni offered his pet example of “converting one-and-a-half runs into two” while batting alongside Virat Kohli.
“If I’m successful at No.4, it gives the team a bit of a liberty because I’ll try to score at a decent pace,” he said. “Even today I felt I slowed down a bit but I feel it’s important for me to keep playing the big shots. Also it gives me a chance to bat with Virat. We run between the wickets very well, we can take on the opposition fielders even the best ones. If you get a good partnership in the middle, that is 100-125, it becomes slightly easier for the batsman coming after that.
“[Even today] it was a nice wicket but over the time what happened was without much dew it slowed down, so it was not easy to keep rotating the strike. I thought we adjusted very well in the middle overs because we knew there will be overs where we won’t get more than 3-4 runs per over and we knew later on we can always get overs where we can score 8-9 runs and compensate for it.”
By stating that his promotion is an opportunity for youngsters to take ownership of the finishing role, Dhoni is allowing them to learn on the job. Given his utility at the top of the order, it is hard to disagree with his logic that it’s a “win-win” for everybody.