Freddie runs around to his right, he picks up the ball, he aims his throw, and then he holds the ball. There is no magic run out chance. There is no need for the hero pose. This isn’t his time. This isn’t that Freddie.
Freddie is still big. You can’t confuse him with any of the other Lancashire players in the warm up. That tree trunk body, that off kilter stance, the massive shoulders, the blonde hair, the rocking shoulder movement, the John Wayne run up and the heavy ball. Although, the heavy ball seems lighter in the warm up.
Freddie is warming up in full reds. He’s shadow boxing with Adam Hollioake, hugging Charlie Dagnall, and giggling with Luke Wright. If he’s nervous, there is no sign of it. In the batting warm ups he’s playing straight drives, but misses the net by several metres on one. In the fielding practice he puts in the least effort he can without annoying the fielding coach.
Freddie heads off for the final preparation of the game. HE stops to chat to more friends. Everyone gets a chat and a soul brother handshake. As he hits the steps he signs autographs and poses for photos.
Freddie is only playing because Kabir Ali, who was preferred in the semifinal, is injured. Kabir Ali was born injured. Kabir Ali will be injured after he’s dead. But this injury has given one last Hero chance for Freddie. It is, for the occasion, a perfect injury.
Freddie retired exactly five years ago today. He still gets a bigger cheer than Jimmy Anderson when his name is read out. His cheer is even bigger than the boos KP got. He might be old, he might be a semi-successful Reality TV show host, he might be a media whore, but he’s still Freddie. It’s only a few kids under 10 who seem confused why this bloke who’s played two matches this season seems so popular.
Freddie starts off in the slips. Where he did some of his best work. He walks up to the crease to do his run up in between balls. He does it gingerly with a tip-toeing pigeon step. As the ball is delivered, he jumps into a sumo wrestler pose waiting for the edge. Looking for that one-handed glory. So he can look nonchalant about it seconds later.
Freddie only looks nervous when he’s about to bowl. Paul Horton talks to him about the field, but Freddie looks distracted. Varun Chopra tries to move some of the crowd, and Freddie just wants to bowl. Just get that first one under the belt.
Freddie finally bowls. It is a slow ball on a decent length. Ian Bell hits it straight up in the air. Karl Brown races back at mid on. Freddie watches on. Brown has a lot of time to cover a lot of ground. He gets there. Freddie’s arms go straight into his saviour pose. But there is no certainty to them; it’s just muscle memory. Instead of looking nonchalant, he looks surprised at how he’s ended with a wicket from such a slow length ball.
Freddie completes the over well, allowing only three runs from what is one of the slowest and most innocuous overs of the day. Freddie waves at the crowd, he plays with his cap over his face for someone. He’s enjoying himself. He’s no longer nervous.
Freddie chats to Jimmy about strategy before the next over. But his first ball is horror. It’s the ball Freddie was worried about bowling before his first over. A slow waist-high full toss no ball that floats beautifully onto the bat and way over the rope. The next five balls only give up three runs. There are giggles and smiles between balls. It’s still slow, and his trademark heavy balls are very light but it’s good canny old guy bowling.
Freddie then ends with a half volley on off stump. Porterfield puts it into the crowd.
Freddie then travels from short fine to short fine. The old man position. He’s not consulted on team strategy. He’s just going from end to end. Picking up the odd ball off the thigh pad. Just a player that’s not needed often.
Freddie does dive. He dives suddenly and athletically to his left. The ball has been flicked fast from outside offstump from Rikki Clarke, who did well to find Freddie’s short-fine hiding spot. It hits his hand. It would have been tough in his prime. The ball dribbles off behind him. He’s furious with himself. The next ball Clarke is bowled. Freddie shows more happiness at that than his wicket of Bell.
Freddie warms up. But Paul Horton doesn’t respond. His bowling has looked hittable and medium. It doesn’t seem like a plan, they just don’t think he’s the best option. The most movement he has after the drop is moving from short fine to long leg for one delivery.
Freddie will bat at nine. Freddie has batted six for England in Tests. He has more sixes than any other English batsman in Tests. He has made a run-a-ball 142 against South Africa. He has made two better than run-a-ball hundreds in ODI cricket. When Brad Hogg made his comeback, he gave up any pretention of being an all rounder. But he was really old, not just old in the ankles and knees like Freddie.
Freddie has a cameraman in front of him for most of the innings. This time it’s not for a one liner, TV stunt or boxing match, he is actually expected to be able to do this. This is why he is famous. The problem with being a hero is that people expect you to be the hero. His bat rests on his shoulder, it’s not his famous Woodworm. He looks nervous. He’s shaking. But it is cold. Very cold. He shakes as Karl Brown gets Lancs close.
Freddie picks up his helmet before the bails hit the ground. It’s all business. There is no show. No put on. He holds the bat by the base, like a club. His helmet has tape over the logo. He just wants to get out there and face. He pokes at the pitch, briefly, barely takes guard, and then awkwardly nudges for one. There are other singles as well. He now runs like an old man.
Freddie is three off three when Hannon-Dalby bowls a slow ball in the slot. Freddie times it. It jumps off his bat. It sails over the bowler. Over the long off. Over the rope. Over the photographers. Over the fence. Over three rows. Row 4. Six runs. Next ball it’s a full toss, it’s slapped low and hard to deep midwicket. Through the hand of a fielder, and into the shoulder of a security guard. He chats to Hannon-Dalby after the six. He’s looking fired up now.
Freddie now doesn’t look like a guy who has spent the last two weeks in the back of a fish and chip van. Freddie looks like a hero.
Freddie steals a bye from the non striker’s end. He doesn’t run quickly, he doesn’t dive well, but he manages to make it over the line. Woakes laughs at him as he struggles to get up from the dirt. They need 13 runs off five balls. Freddie mishits twice. Both get him twos. Nine runs off three balls.
Freddie times the ball. But it’s along the carpet and straight at a fielder. There is no six, four or even two. He’s now off strike. But he stops Woakes from bowling and chats to the umpire. He then relays the information to Parry. It could have been important, but it looks like he is trying to put as much pressure on Woakes as he can without actually facing. Woakes bowls two good balls, Birmingham win.
Freddie completes the single and shakes the hands of the umpire. For a man of his talent, it’s a modest bits-and-pieces game. And yet still, Freddie has almost won the game. He almost sucked the victory into his orbit. Just by being there.
Freddie is a marvel, even when he isn’t. It was finals day, he wasn’t even supposed to play, and even on the losing side at the non-striker’s end, he is the story.
Freddie is besieged by Birmingham players straight after their initial celebration. They’re not shaking the hand of an opposition player. They are shaking the hand of their hero. Freddie has almost won a game after five years out of the game against a bunch of kids who grew up watching him on TV. Every handshake confirms this more.
Freddie doesn’t stand with his arms out as teammates drape themselves across him, he stands to the side and claps the winning side off the ground.
Freddie is still the hero. But it’s not his time.
The announcer reads out the list of Surrey players. One name gets booed. He has played over 100 Tests. Won four Ashes. A World T20. Scored match-winning hundreds around the world. But if Surrey were going to have a player booed, it wasn’t going to be Gary Wilson, was it?
It’s KP’s first big day of the summer. He’s been floating around The Oval. He turned up at the IPL. And even made his way off to the CPL. That is 25 matches. Spread around England, St Kitts, Cardiff, Dubai and India. And one fifty.
A 58. In a losing cause. 14 innings ago. This from Mr Box Office. The man for the big stage. The man who saves his best work for when people are watching.
The only thing more horrible than KP’s treatment by the ECB has been his form.
So there he was on his first major stage of the UK summer. The ECB’s premier domestic cricket day. The cameras are here. The crowd is here. The press are here. And KP walks out on a pitch that Jason Roy has just used to hit Rikki Clarke into small pieces. The chase is big. A place in the final is there for Surrey. The whole thing might have scripted by his PR crew. Piers Morgan probably had his hands on his smart phone waiting to tweet “told ya so”.
KP makes 13. Off 16 balls.
He hits one six. It should have been caught. He doesn’t look in form. He doesn’t look in charge. He doesn’t really look that KP.
A full straight ball from Boyd Rankin is squeezed through his legs. His head is not balanced, he’s not immediately sure where it has gone. Boyd Rankin appeals like he hasn’t hit it. A couple of balls later he’s smashed on the pads as well. It’s not out, but he’s not near it. His loft towards long on looks forced. He watches the ball the whole way, and then nervously smiles and fist bumps Steve Davies as it just drops over the rope.
That drop is almost half his score.
There has clearly been some kind of conspiracy. The old, great, wonderful KP has nobbled. He’s been slipped some ketamine. He’s been handcuffed by invisible chains. The ECB have put a curse on him. Where is Big Time Kev. Where is the arrogance? Where is the swagger? Where are the runs?
He looks old, he looks tired, and he doesn’t look like he’s anywhere near the T20 batsman Jason Roy is.
While KP faces Jeetan Patel, Jimmy Anderson walks around the ground. The crowd rise for him. They cheer his name. They sing the “Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy Anderson chant” as KP blocks the ball and gets no run. The crowd doesn’t chant for KP. He gives them no reason to.
Ateeq Javid takes KP caught and bowled. The crowd cheer, almost as loud as Javid screams. The mid-innings spoiler has defeated the international star. KP leaves the crease. He doesn’t speak to the incoming batsman. He doesn’t talk to anyone in the dug out. He sits down quietly on the front bench. Then he gets up and moves to the back corner. A long way from a starring role.
The cricketer comes home from the ground, turns on his computer and fires up his favourite game. It’s one of those strategic warfare fantasy games that takes a long time, and needs much attention. He gives it his all. He conquers gods, vanquishes trolls and protects his castle.
The game has programming rules that cannot be cheated. It’s an epic, but an epic within the guideline of modern computer gaming knowledge. He understands it. A mistake on it might cost some pride, but it won’t be reported on for days by past greats. He doesn’t have to front up to cameras, or answer pissy questions about decisions he made. No one will stone his house. No one will blame his family.
It’s just a game. You switch it off.
MS Dhoni told All Out Cricket magazine of how he would have catching practice in front of a senior player’s motorbike years ago. It was to scare him into not missing the ball. And his keeping is like that. It would make Wally Grout cry from an aesthetic viewpoint, but it’s survivalist keeping.
Dhoni might be gifted, but he also knows how to survive.
The ball drops on the off side and Dhoni takes off for a risky single. There is an 8-1 off-side field. The ball goes past the stumps and overthrows are taken. It could have been just a simple lucky break. But maybe it was Dhoni’s magic cricket brain looking for an easy single if they couldn’t shy at the stumps, or easy overthrows if they missed the one stump to aim at.
It’s not even a question you would ask about most players, but Dhoni thinks about cricket on a different plane than most people.
The myth of Dhoni has always been there. He drinks four litres of milk a day. He runs eight kilometres a day. He won’t cut his hair for luck. On the back of Tendulkar and Dravid, Dhoni is almost too good to be real. India’s first great keeper-batsman. A man who doesn’t hit the ball but hurts the ball. A leader. A statesman. A patriotic hero from the boondocks.
Dhoni has magic. Dhoni is magic.
The Joginder Sharma over. Him moving up the order in 2011 World Cup final. A simultaneous long- and regular mid-off for Kieron Pollard. The Ishant Sharma Champions Trophy over. The 7-2 fields. They are the glory stories that sometimes don’t look as magical when you really think them through.
For instance, there were virtually no other options other than Joginder for the 20th over in the 2007 World T20 final. Harbhajan Singh had bowled himself out of the game in the 17th over. Sreesanth bowled his last over in the 18th. There were two overs left, and three frontliners left to bowl. RP Singh bowled the most important, penultimate over. And Joginder was a specialist last-over bowler that Dhoni had seen up close and personal do that job before. Including in the match before.
And yet, if Misbah had got a tickle, instead of a mishit, on that scoop, Pakistan could have won. Second ball after Dhoni promoted himself in the World Cup final, he could have been stumped. Processes and results.
Nothing deserves more analysis than the Ishant Sharma over. It was heralded as one of the great masterstrokes of captaincy. Your fast bowler is not bowling well. There are three overs left. You probably don’t want him bowling in the Powerplay at the end. You have a medium-fast new-ball specialist and a young kid with overs to spare but you turn back to probably your least reliable death bowler. Ishant bowls a dot ball, followed by a short ball on leg stump that goes over the rope. He follows it up with two wides. What should happen next is an over that loses the game. Instead Eoin Morgan chases leg side, when he should have gone over off, and is out. Next, a short, average ball is smashed by Ravi Bopara straight to a fielder. Ishant wins the game. Dhoni is a magician.
The processes seemed flawed there, but the result was not.
You can’t really know what it’s like to be an India cricketer until someone has stoned your house because you decided to bat second on a day that might rain. That is what happened to Dhoni in Ranchi when, against Australia, he decided that batting second with rain around would help his side. Instead, the match at JSCA International Stadium was washed out. And some fans on the way home decided to let him know his decision not to let them see him and his mates bat was rubbish.
“We spent money to watch our country’s sensations Dhoni, Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan. We lost both money and an interesting match due to rain.” We threw stones at your house.
The press conference at the WACA is in a sweaty concrete box that has brown ooze leaking from the roof, with gym equipment moved to the side. It’s a horrible place for anyone, and a weird place for a multi-millionaire to have to front up and explain his actions.
India are now 0-3 against Australia, 0-7 in consecutive overseas Tests. The Indian cricket historian Boria Majunder is in front of a camera and the veins on his hands, throat and forehead are dancing violently. The press pack sit and whisper to each other. Dhoni walks in. The Indian journalists try their questions, it goes nowhere. A lone English journalist asks a question. It’s not really a question, it’s more an outpouring of frustration of having been at the last seven away Tests.
He asks Dhoni what is happening behind closed doors, if Dhoni is furious with his players. If he’s grabbing them by the throat. That he’s showing passion. If this hurts him. If he is really doing anything to fix it. The questions come with passion and frustration, the emotion is obvious. Dhoni smiles, shows none of the emotion of the questioner and suggests that all players are different and that some don’t respond well to yelling so you have to do whatever you can to get the most out of them.
In one question from a neutral there was more passion than Dhoni ultimately showed in any of his eight losing press conferences in that run.
Ishant Sharma didn’t want to bowl short at Lord’s. Dhoni convinced him.
The balls before the wickets, England were playing the hook with ease. They were scoring freely. The India lead was fast disappearing. Commentators were already starting to attack this stupid tactic.
But if you’d followed England up to that point, you knew the hooks were their bravado. You knew that they couldn’t keep it up. You knew that eventually at least one of them would fail. Luckily for Dhoni, it was far more than one. It’s more than possible that this was a mistake by Dhoni, who became the genius when English players made more mistakes more often.
It will be added to the Dhoni myth.
Dhoni is not suddenly leading the first ever great India touring team, and doing it badly. In his time, it hasn’t been a great team, even if it’s had greats in it.
Zaheer Khan is skilful, to use the modern parlance. Bhajji was great at home, average away. Ishant may still be a work in progress after he has retired. RP Singh was gone before he went to Southbeach. Ashish Nehra never quite made it. Munaf Patel slowed down. R Ashwin isn’t the answer.
There is no Harris, Johnson, Philander, Asif, Amir, Herath, Swann, Ajmal or Steyn in that list. To win on the road you need consistent wicket-taking threats. Zaheer aside, India haven’t been close under Dhoni. If Dhoni wanted a bowler to improve his team, he should trade a couple of his potential batting prodigies for one Javagal Srinath clone.
But now even his batting is looking poor. And his slips can’t catch the few chances his bowlers make. It’s not a time of milk and honey.
Dhoni backed Ravindra Jadeja when no one else would have. But Jadeja can go either way. And while he was lucky in his innings at Lord’s, he was largely useless at each and every other time he was used. Ashwin spent three Tests reading fiction, and two Tests bowling and batting better than Jadeja.
The most frequently asked question of this series is what the hell is Stuart Binny? A No. 8 who has bowled 32 overs across three Tests isn’t a Test cricketer, he’s a passenger. If he is a swing bowler, why was he consistently across all games deprived of the ball when it was swinging? If he was an actual bowler, why was he deprived the ball in every game? If he was a batsman, why the hell was he behind Jadeja in the batting order?
Rohit Sharma played one shot and he disappeared. He must look at all the other shots everyone else played and sigh.
Dhawan is a match-winner. He was replaced by Gautam Gambhir. Gambhir’s average is 6.25 in this series. And that flatters him. The only time he stayed in the middle was to check if he was run out. One of India’s biggest fighting men, standing mid-pitch in the rain, as everyone else runs off, just hoping he had just got back in the crease to continue his miserable attempt at an innings. Even on a depressing tour, this was a dark moment.
The broadcaster should be fined for showing India fans such unedited brutality.
India are 1-0 up, chasing 180. They needed 87 in 15 overs with seven wickets in hand. Dhoni shakes hands.
There are India fans who have read that and just gone back into a fit of rage they might take a hour to get over. This was against West Indies in 2011. It was their last victory in an overseas Test series. It was their first in two years. Sure, they were the No. 1 Test team but much of that had been made from draws, they had only really beaten New Zealand away from home, 1-0 in 2009. The one before that was in 2007. Against Bangladesh.
India don’t win away from home.
So now think about what Dhoni did. Of course, they could and should have batted on to win that Test against West Indies. But why would Dhoni, a man who loves to weigh up the odds and numbers in his favour, a man who likes to bat in ODIs until the bowler is under as much pressure as him, throw all caution to the wind and give West Indies a chance of denying India a precious away series victory?
That series was their last win away from home. Dhoni’s team had earned it. He wasn’t going to risk another Test win against his series win. Dhoni’s brain isn’t programmed that way.
The owner of Chennai Super Kings might be hard to work out but we know who picks the team.
Dhoni picks role players, working parts, that make his team better than other teams. Their overseas players aren’t Gayle, Malinga and KP. They are players who fill gaps in their Indian roster and will play the game in certain ways. Brendon McCullum is their biggest name but Ben Hilfenhaus, Faf du Plessis, Dwayne Bravo, Dwayne Smith, Samuel Badree, Matt Henry and John Hastings are the other players listed there. While most IPL teams rely on overseas batsmen, Dhoni relies on the locals at the top of the order.
It gives him a team of no missing parts, a real team. Not a few stars with teenagers filling in the spots. That Chennai team is probably the best team there has ever been in domestic T20 cricket. It brings Dhoni much pride. He likes the way he brought it together, he likes how it works, he loves to play with them.
He tries to create this in Test cricket. Good, honest, battler cricketers. What you have to do in Test criket, is wherever possible pick your best team.
India did not do that once here. Arguably they did not do that once in South Africa. Arguably they did not do that once in New Zealand. This Investec Pataudi series we saw Dhoni’s Frankenstein in full horror.
Most cricket journalists refer to players by name, or just ask them the question. Not so for Dhoni. Indian journalists refer to Dhoni as “captain” or “skipper”. It’s the ultimate respect. It’s as if his position is not just captain of the cricket team, but captain of the nation.
The next captain probably won’t be called that. Dhoni may be the last. Dhoni is not just a captain, he is the captain. The most winningest captain in the history of India.
Dhoni was won the World T20. Dhoni has won the IPL. Dhoni has won the Champions League. Dhoni has taken India to No. 1 Test nation. Dhoni has won the Champions Trophy. All as captain. He has done all of that in a shorter period of time than Graeme Smith, who didn’t win a World cup or World T20. And without Kallis and Steyn.
All that is left for him is to be his nation’s Clive Lloyd or Allan Border. The man who sets up a team that can win for a generation. Dhoni wants to do that, and then walk into the sunset and ride his motorbikes and help India’s armed forces. At this rate, that ride is postponed, indefinitely.
Dhoni is a great limited-overs captain. He probably would be even if his trophy cabinet wasn’t full. But it’s the results which have allowed him to have the career he has had. They allow him to select the team, the coach and dodge bullets when it comes to his time to be fired.
There is no doubt he has a proper connection with the limited-overs game. He has a way of getting the most out of players. And he has MS Dhoni in his team. Unless you get him out, they win. It’s a pretty good combination. It is how captaincy should be.
Rarely is he attacking in the field, but he finds interesting and novel ways to contain, frustrate and disrupt opposition players. You can see how instinctive he is. You can see how the analysis and preparation often drifts away. Dhoni reads the game so well, it’s like he wrote its code. At times it is as if he is working on another level to all the other players.
In Test cricket much of that seems to go away. There are no real timings. It just goes. A decision in a limited-overs match can often be seen immediately as a mistake or success. In Test cricket it might take hours, sessions or days to work out if what you did was right. The instant feedback disappears. Dhoni can’t make his instant adrenalin calls the same way.
Tests are not like that. You might make the exact right decision, but you need to stick with it for hours, sessions or days to get the result. You don’t chase targets, you just bat. You bowl your bowlers until they’re tired, broken or dead, not until their quota is done. You don’t need a mathematic brain, you need a brain that understands the past, present and future and can plan endlessly. There is no definitive right or wrongs.
But it’s not just that Test Cricket isn’t a programme, there is also a simple truth. Dhoni has a great ODI team. Dhoni does not have a great Test team.
India lost within three days despite rain at Old Trafford. There is a hurricane coming, and there is already a monsoon of disappointment from the media and fans. Dhoni sits at the press conference desk and flicks the microphone and laughs.
It could be seen as an uncaring captain. One who cares more for the yellow or blue clothes he performs so well in. But really it’s just how Dhoni is. He won’t be as upset as you want him to be. He will react to the loss his way. He expects better from his team, he wants better from his team. But a tragic loss won’t affect him how it will affect most of the fans back home.
That is how you become Dhoni. For better and worse.
By the end of the Oval Test, Dhoni had fronted up for 100 days more cricket than any other international captain. He will have played in 285 days of Test Cricket, 159 ODIs, 48 T20s. Plus 122 IPL matches. He’s also played some Champions League and a few tour matches.
In public press conferences on this tour alone Dhoni has uttered approximately 9156 words on this tour. And that is before what will surely be an epic last press conference that may never end.
While he shows little patience with the bat, Dhoni is nothing but patient with the press. Throw him a furious tiger snake, and he’ll talk it down with talk of processes, positivity and not getting caught up in the result. The snake would end up nodding hypnotically back at Dhoni as his anwer went beyond mere words and forms a stream-of-unconscious self-help mumblecore poem. The snake is always defeated. But the snake never goes away.
Dhoni faced five balls in the second innings at The Oval. The fifth one was edged on to his hip, short leg took the catch.
Dhoni looked up quickly, then hurriedly left the ground. There was no applause for the man who had surprisingly won at Lord’s, who had made a great knock in the first innings and who had, despite a batting style that shouldn’t work in England, made four fifties. Instead it was a quick walk. A typically emotionless response. And a few quick practices of his clip off the hip that went wrong.
Dhoni was already back in the now. That wicket was the past. There would be more balls on the hip to play in the future. This was all a process. The result didn’t matter. It never did.
Unless you win.
A Test series is not over after a day, it takes months. Every single choice, lifestyle, selection and on-the-field action is dissected by people. People who are under less pressure than you. People who don’t know how hard you work. How hard you try. How much it means to you. People who have never played. People who have never been as scrutinised as you. It doesn’t end. It keeps going. And you either win, or it breaks you.
If it doesn’t break you now, the next one will. Or the next one.
Do you know what old champagne smells like? It doesn’t smell like victory. And what is worse is when you can’t even remember what the smell of champagne is like.
Dhoni can control his gaming. Dhoni can control his limited-overs cricket. Dhoni can’t control Test cricket.
It’s not a game.
MS Dhoni has the helicopter shot. But he also has the helicopter crash shot. A walking wipe that appears to have been invented for little more than catching practice. His wrists fling the bat upwards like a windscreen wiper to balls outside off stump that most people just use a simple straight bat to deal with. It is a shot that should not be played by any normal human being. Any MCC coaching manuals in the vicinity explode as he plays it. But as impossible a shot as it is, it doesn’t get Dhoni out as much as it should. Mostly because Dhoni is not a normal human being.
Unbeaten on 50 at stumps on day one in Nottingham, what did the richest cricketer in history do? Strolled around Nottingham in shorts and a camouflage jacket like he was a ticket collector from Kharagpur on holiday. In fact, some of his shots look like that too.
There is the shuffle and squash defensive shot. In which Dhoni all but drops a piano on the ball as it turns up. The waddle and whip through the leg side. He leaves the ball by staring straight down at it, like he’s warning it of future slaps. When Nasser Hussain described the different cover drives of M Vijay, Ian Bell and Dhoni, he called the first two cover drives, and the latter a Dhoni cover drive.
Dhoni is handmade. He has unmistakable physicality. There is no stage when he is on the field that you can mistake him for anyone else. He has a sportsman’s body, not an athletic one. The sort who could play point guard, return all serves and play with a three handicap despite never looking all that fit. His walk is more of a waddle than a strut. He never looks toned. And his weightlifter things look like they could hold the weight of the world, if need be.
At times Dhoni barely leaves the crease when backing up. After the ball is bowled Dhoni usually goes down further for advice and support. It will be a slow walk, a word or two. Encouragement, never seemingly anything technical. On his way back he’ll tap the pitch. For a man who hits the ball like it did him a mischief, he taps the pitch like a vet working with a wounded animal. It’s almost as if he’s waiting for the right sound, rather than seeing how firm or otherwise it is.
Whether it’s batting, keeping, walking or emoting, Dhoni does as little as he needs to do. He is a constant conserver of everything. Why waste what you might need later?
At one stage someone excitedly notices that Dhoni refuses the single that will take him to 50 so he doesn’t expose Ishant Sharma. That whole moment generates more excitement than Dhoni does in a whole innings. His whole team has collapsed around him. He’s been the most consistent batsman. He has a chance to get a 50, and he still puts the team fist. The team that has just collapsed in four straight innings. The team that is about to go 3-1 down after leading. But Dhoni just bats.
His leadership is often looked at as what he does when India are in the field. But with the bat he’s often disappointed. He will not go down as an all-time great Test batsmen. His average of 38.77 doesn’t even put him right of the top of the keeper-batsmen list. But he has moments.
In not worrying about being pretty, Dhoni has an advantage. He can’t be made to look silly. While some fret with their techniques and others work out their form, Dhoni just bats. He bats with batsmen. He bats with allrounders. He bats with tailenders. He looks more untidy than them all.
Chris Jordan fires in a straight, full ball outside off stump. Dhoni misses it. People around the ground moan and murmur about how good a delivery it was. The replay shows a fairly standard ball that a top-order batsman should not miss. It also shows a bat hurriedly paddling through the line and all around like a piece of wet spaghetti in a hurricane. Any other top-order batsman would never show his face in the gentleman’s batting club again.
Later Jordan bowls another full ball outside off stump, maybe a bit wider. But it’s as good as the delivery before it. This time Dhoni swats it over mid-off for six. It’s a bludgeon and a punch. His footwork is much like a weekend golfer, and the shot wouldn’t be out of place in any tennis ball game you see. A No. 11 shot.
A Dhoni shot.
In Southampton, Pankaj Singh walked off the ground after England’s second innings completely alone. Not one team-mate waited for him to walk off. He had to make a 100-metre walk alone. If you watched him on the entire walk, you could hear the “sad Hulk” theme.
There is a red thread around Pankaj’s right wrist when he bowls. Despite Sunday being the Hindu festival Raksha Bandhan, this is not a Rakhi. It is not a sign of a bond between him and his sister. The Rakhi is a knot of protection. Whatever Pankaj’s wrist thread signifies, it’s not protection. And it’s certainly not for luck either.
There was a smile for Pankaj on day two at Old Trafford. It came, unsurprisingly, when he had no luck. Instead of getting angry or disappointed, he smiled.
A newspaper recently wrote in its death notices that “Deaths are coming”. The remnants of a tropical storm are about to flood England. Meanwhile, the Daily Express, is concerned about lunar activity: “The SUPERMOON will light up the sky in a beautiful spectacle on Sunday but may also act as a catalyst to Earth’s terrifying and dramatic conclusion.”
We could all be dead by the time Monday roles around. Pankaj Singh started Friday with the thought that he could end it as the single worst bowler in Test match history. And he smiled. He started Saturday with that in mind, and the potential for our global annihilation, and he smiled again. He smiled after another luckless over as he stood out on the ugly mush by the fine leg boundary. He stood on the semi-dried sludge, knowing that he might never ever take a Test wicket. And he smiled.
How can you not like Pankaj?
I know his gait, I know that it changes in different situations. I know the lean in when the ball is about to be bowled. I can see how he has a different step when walking around the field to when he’s coming in to bowl. I know all this because I have become obsessed with Pankaj. In between overs I stare at him through my binoculars. I watch his spells live, and then every single ball again on replay. I then Hawk-Eye the overs later.
I noticed his new thumb guard, needed after one of his all-too-common fumbles. Noticed that when he fields, on the very odd occasion, in a catching position, he does it with all the grace of a plumber performing a plié. I see when he finds himself at mid-off with no cover fielder, he asks a more agile fielder to swap with him. And I am watching close enough to notice that while in general he sort of flicks his feet out for each step, when it’s bowling time, he has more purpose, more strength in each step. Pankaj likes bowling time.
No matter how poor he bowled, how poor his luck was, how much the batsmen are taking him on, you can see it. He’s a born bowler. Nothing says that more than his batting.
It’s hard to not be romantic about him. Every single time he fronted up to the crease he seemed to be looking more and more likely to end up as the single worst bowler in the history of cricket, statistically speaking. Despite bowling well at times, really well even, he was somehow going further and further into Test-match bowling without taking a wicket. Ian Botham did some analysis on Sky that said he could have taken ten wickets so far. The press box was cheering him on. Twitter was tear-stained after every play and miss. His pain was seemingly everyone’s. We all just wanted him to have one wicket. Save the embarrassment, give him something. Forget the luck, just one. Please.
It’s not often a player gets picked for romantics or even on popular opinion. Behind the lovable-lug nature, the cold analysis is not as heart-warming for Pankaj. He’s not a perfect bowler. The outswing, offcut and bounce are all good. But his biggest problem is his lack of consistency ball after ball, over after over, day after day. On Saturday morning, he bowled two overs with the old ball. Twice he went past Jos Buttler’s edge with top class international deliveries. But then with the new ball, he was ordinary.
He struggled for a decent line, often just spraying wide and harmless. His length was poor as well. He didn’t correct it. And, not for the first time, MS Dhoni had to drag him off and overbowl Bhuvneshwar Kumar. His front arm is not strong, which could be the reason he sometimes doesn’t get it right. But the problem he really has is that at his pace, to succeed at this level, Test after Test, against big bats, flat pitches and an ever-encroaching boundary triangle, you need to be able to put 23 out of 24 balls in a place that is restricting the batsman. Pankaj doesn’t, yet. He’s a bowler who bowls you the odd ball that is too good, and occasionally gifts the batsman free runs. That’s not unlucky, that’s untidy.
Whatever the outcome of the ball, Pankaj reacts much the same. A look at where the ball has gone, the odd nostril flare or sideways glance at the batsman, and then head down and back to his mark. He doesn’t seek out any chat, or respond much to it. Once, Rod Tucker tried to suggest his feet were finding the pitch’s danger zone, but even then Pankaj didn’t really stop or listen, he just went back to his mark, and waited for the ball. Pankaj is almost always ready before his team-mates, waiting for the ball, yanking up his left shirt sleeve and waiting for one more chance.
It’s probably no different to what he has done more than 16,000 times in first-class cricket. It’s probably no different to how he has played for any of the 2424 days since he first played a tour game for India. Same again. One more spell. He had bowled 26 spells in Test cricket. One more over. He had bowled 69 overs. One more ball. He had bowled 415 balls. One more. One more.
On the 16,162nd ball of his first-class career, Pankaj comes in again. His action is slightly more hurried, he is searching for pace. But the ball isn’t quick, and it’s down the legside. It’s not a good ball. It’s not the ball that has got Pankaj selected. It’s not a swinger or a cutter. It’s a ball that Joe Root should score four from. Instead it bounces a little and brushes some glove. Dhoni takes it in front of his eyes.
Pankaj turns instantly to the umpire. He has appealed to these two umpires, Marais Erasmus and Rod Tucker, many times. They’ve never given him anything. But this time he doesn’t plead with both hands and the face of pure desperation, this time he appeals like he’s finally got a chance. Like he doesn’t have to prove himself, that his desperation is simply not needed. Erasmus sticks his finger up straight away. Pankaj looks to the sky. Deaths are not coming. There is no hurricane. The supermoon can’t defeat him.
This time the luck is his. Pankaj Singh has a lucky wicket. Pankaj Singh has a Test wicket. He is Pankaj Singh, Test wicket-taker.
The commentators cheer, the press box cheers, the Indian fans scream and even the English fans cheer. It’s rare that one wicket can give so much cheer to so many different cricket fans. I put my binoculars up to my eye. I tell myself it’s to see him close up. But I know it’s really to stop people seeing my tears. This is the happiest I’ve ever been for a crap leg-side dismissal. It’s probably close to as happy as I can be for someone I don’t actually know.
Those who do know him flock to him, his team-mates crowd around him. He tries to smile, but he’s too embarrassed to do it properly. They all look happier than he does. He’s taking big breaths and is clearly not comfortable with the attention for what was one of the worst wickets of his career. They love it. The team stay in a circle, smiling, laughing, joking, happy for their team-mate. Pankaj walks off back to his mark.
Pankaj is a bowler. He doesn’t need the adulation of a lucky wicket. He needs to bowl his next ball.
At the end of the innings, Pankaj has to make the long walk across the field. It’s every bit as far as his walk in Southampton. Yet again he walks all the way across the ground alone. This time his team-mates wait for him.