This article is from Wisden India.
By R Kaushik
"Everyone says I don't feel the pressure. But even I feel the same pressure as others. It's just that I have been in those situations many times, and so I know how to get out of that situation."
That was Mahendra Singh Dhoni, not long after steadying a rocking ship and steering India to safe shores in their Pool B league fixture against West Indies.
Friday's (March 6) showdown was the first time in four games in the World Cup that India's batting was tested, by a charged-up West Indian attack on a spiced-up WACA surface. Having posted 300 in each of their first two games, against Pakistan and South Africa, and hunted down UAE's 102 in double-quick time in their previous matches, India were asked to score 183. It was a tricky chase in conditions that suited the quicker bowlers. In the end, it looked a comfortable result - victory by four wickets with nearly 11 overs to spare, but that doesn't even tell half the story.
The massive sixes don't, admittedly, appear as frequently as they used to, but that has had plenty to do with where and how Dhoni has had to bat.
The top order didn't provide the platform, the middle order threw away starts with strokes that weren't in keeping with the situation in a clear indication that they hadn't learnt any lessons watching West Indies gift wickets away. In the end, India needed Dhoni's phlegmatic presence, R Ashwin's stoicism, their unseparated 51-run partnership and a generous dose of wides from the excitable Caribbean quicks to equal their longest World Cup winning streak, eight matches.
Only once in his last ten One-Day International knocks has Dhoni scored more than Friday's match-settling unbeaten 45. There has been plenty of chatter about how the Indian limited-overs captain has lost his big-hitting mojo, about how his efficacy and strike rate have dropped. The massive sixes don't, admittedly, appear as frequently as they used to, but that has had plenty to do with where and how Dhoni has had to bat.
Early last year, Dhoni had a terrific ODI series in New Zealand, making 40, 56, 50, 79* and 47 in a series India lost 0-4. The smaller grounds there allowed him to strike the ball with finality. Batting at No. 5 twice and No. 6 on the other three occasions, he walked in with his side behind the eight-ball, then teed off in some style after an initial period of assessment. His 272 runs came off 295 deliveries, a strike rate of 92.20; he struck 20 fours and nine sixes. The Dhoni we all know and love.
Dhoni hardly played ODI cricket after that for the rest of the year - only seven games of which he didn't have to bat in two. He made a half-century in Cardiff against England and 51* against West Indies at home, both in winning causes, but wasn't required to do much more as the top order feasted itself on the English and West Indian bowling attacks. India won five of those seven matches fairly comprehensively on the back of their heavy-duty batting, and, for once, Dhoni could bat without worrying about the game situation.
In the tri-series here in Australia in January, with India short of firepower beyond him and the frontline batsmen in indifferent touch, Dhoni's scores were 19, 34 and 17, all painstakingly compiled. The Dhoni explosion never materialised; the first stroke he played in anger found a fielder, adding further fuel to the 'the big hitting is history' fire.
In the World Cup, however, Dhoni has quietly chipped away at the bowling. He hasn't had the big scores, but he has done his bit. Against Pakistan, he came in with 28 deliveries left and made a 13-ball 18. At the MCG, he smashed 18 off 11 after walking out with 31 balls to play in the innings. That adds up to 36 off 24, with four fours and a six, but not in one innings, so not impactful enough for those that watch the game through conveniently coloured lenses.
Contrary to popular opinion, Dhoni isn't at home having a go at the bowling from ball one. He likes to take his time, get the feet moving, the circulation flowing; he takes that time to size up the bowling, the pace and character of the pitch, which bowlers are bowling well and which ones are susceptible to pressure. Then, when he is confident in the information he has gathered, he stares the bowling down, he drives them to their knees. 'I can handle the heat, but can you?' he asks through his eyes. No prizes for guessing who blinks first.
"It is very tough to hit out from ball one, it is very difficult even for me, I don't really like it," admitted Dhoni. "But somebody has to do it so that others can bat in their perfect, preferred slots. I have tuned up my batting a lot after the 2006 tour of Pakistan. I have consistently batted lower down the order after that. More than my number in the batting order, it was about my slot - to come in after 30 overs. I had to improvise according to the demands of the situation - either you have to pull out the big shots straightaway or, if we have lost quick wickets, to stabilise the innings. I have never batted with a fixed mindset, I have not been rigid. But because I have been in situations before, I know how to get out of those situations. It's not that I will always succeed in doing so, but when you know the way out, it becomes easier."
45 not out off 56 under pressure, with the ball whizzing around, was just the kind of outing Dhoni needed.
Friday was scrappy and unpretty, even by Dhoni standards. But he never lost sight of the goal. Dhoni has never been about looks; he doesn't care if the connoisseurs go 'oooh' and 'aaah', or they turn their noses up in derision. To him, it's all about getting the job done - winning ugly, if you like, but in an entirely different context. Like on Friday, when the ball jagged around, when the bounce was slightly unpredictable, when the bowling was threatening, and when the rest of the batting around him was playing with the nonchalance of a pauper who embarks on a shopping spree like he has a million bucks in the bank.
Dhoni needed this hit out more than anyone else. The others in the top order had all made runs and faced enough balls in the middle, which meant the captain had very little batting time in a match situation. Going into the knockouts, India could have ill afforded for one of their star ball-strikers - don't you worry, Dhoni is still up there with the best - not to have had at least one serious knock. 45 not out off 56 under pressure, with the ball whizzing around, was just the kind of outing Dhoni needed.
"It was a realistic scenario, I had to have partnerships with the lower order. I had one with Ashwin," said Dhoni later. "The boundaries in Australia are pretty big, hence I emphasise that we have to accept that we can't hit big sixes here. We have to manoeuvre the ball, use the pace, pick the gaps and take twos, play innovative shots." Advice not lost on Ashwin, though some of the specialist batsmen would do well to heed the captain's words.Suggest a correction