Dhoni’s Test game

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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