The curious case of MS Dhoni against England

Mahendra Singh Dhoni walks off the field after the defeat in the group stage match against England at Edgbaston. Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

"I have no explanation for that single. "

- Sourav Ganguly in the commentary box in the 49th over of India's chase during their group stage match against England.

When India faced England in the 1975 World Cup, the former had to chase a then massive total of 334. In reply, India’s opener Sunil Gavaskar played a baffling innings of an unbeaten 36 off 174 balls. The innings was criticised for Gavaskar’s absolute lack of intent in chasing the target. In his defence, most of the cricketers back then were trying to figure out the new toy that was ODI cricket.

In this 2019 India vs. England World Cup group stage match, England batted first and posted a huge total of 337.

When India arrived at the World Cup with the tag of favourites securely fastened, everyone marvelled at their batting and bowling prowess and belief crept into the mind of sceptics: If anyone could pull off a miracle in the tournament, it would be India.

Against England on this June afternoon, though, they faltered. The mighty batting line-up crumbled under pressure. KL Rahul departed for a duck, and then, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma started to accumulate runs slowly and steadily, keeping India on track. They fell as England relentlessly searched for wickets, and then chaos took over the chase. And in the middle of the chaos stood MS Dhoni, India's talisman for so many years. Unperturbed by the pressure, nonchalant as a monk. The team needed him to find his old mojo and pull off a Houdini act, like he has done so many times before.

He faltered too. And in the most bizzare, dramatic fashion. As long as Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya were out in the middle, it looked like it was possible to achieve. The run rate crept up but the two power hitters had the ability to keep a leash on that. Even after Pant got out, Hardik continued his marauding batting, threatening England’s victory and their dream of qualifying for the semifinals. But then, his onslaught came to an end in the 45th over as Liam Plunkett produced a moment of magic. Dhoni was still at the crease.

Then, he was at 16 runs off 13 balls. India needed 71 runs to win from the last five overs. The asking rate was 14.2 . Dhoni, instead of going for the big hits, decided to take singles. He nudged the ball, pushed it into a vacant region and strolled for one run, maybe even two. In the next 11 balls that Dhoni faced after Pandya’s wicket, he scored a surprisingly meagre 13 runs. The run rate crept up further. The nation started to pray frantically as Dhoni adjusted his gloves and took guard. He personified serenity and peace.

At the end of the 48th over, the asking rate had rocketed to 25.2, India needed 51 runs to win from 12 balls. MS Dhoni was at 29 runs off 24 balls. The match was done and effectively sealed by England. Yes, in the next seven balls, Dhoni scored 13 runs and finished with a strike rate of 135.48. But by then, it was too late.

Yes, it will be unfair to blame Dhoni alone. India were 28/1 at the end of the first 10 overs, a figure that's absolutely unacceptable when a team is chasing anything in excess of 300. KL Rahul used up 9 balls and left without scoring a run. Kedar Jadhav prodded along with Dhoni, scoring just 12 runs off 13 balls. Yes, England bowled with acute discipline and guile, with Jofra Archer, Liam Plunkett, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood never allowing the batsmen to free their arms. Yes, the pitch offered uneven bounce and became a little slow in the second innings. What was really lacking was intent.

Sourav Ganguly said in the commentary box that Hardik Pandya played selflessly. He went for the big shots and eventually perished, but boundaries were the need of the hour. Dhoni and Jadhav both showed a strange reluctance to go for the big shots as was evident from the solitary boundary between overs 45 and 48.

What were they thinking? No one knows. Maybe they had some calculation, maybe Dhoni had a plan that backfired. The lack of attempts to throw the kitchen sink at the chase hurt India, and once again exposed the vulnerability of the middle order. Even against Afghanistan, Dhoni scored 28 runs from 52 balls, an innings that was criticised even by the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag.

Dhoni is a seasoned warrior and he has all the experience and talent to light up the big stage once again. But time is quickly running out. For India to win the World Cup, they need the swashbuckling Dhoni back. Albeit with cropped hair and a touch of grey.

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