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Indian summer for Dhoni

Mahendra Singh Dhoni plays a pull shot during his innings-save knock against Sri Lanka yesterday. (AP)
BANGALORE: If a sporting career was viewed as a bucket list with items to tick off — and let’s be clear that most sportspeople don’t see it that way — then Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s pen would have run dry.
In 2009, his second full year as Test captain, he led India to the No.1 ranking. And by the time he handed over leadership in the white-ball formats to Virat Kohli last January, he had swept the board — the World Twenty20 in 2007, the World Cup in 2011, and the Champions Trophy in 2013.
Dhoni walked away from Test cricket after the Boxing Day game in Melbourne in 2014. He had received few bouquets and many brickbats as India’s form had slumped following that World Cup triumph. Legends made way, and those that came in took time to find their feet. In that transition phase, India were routed 4-0 in Test series in both England and Australia.
But as patchy as limited-overs form might have been in bilateral series, India invariably turned up at the big events. And Dhoni’s nous was a big part of that. Whether it was guiding the bowlers from behind the stumps, or giving DRS advice to Kohli, the new leader, it didn’t take long for the new captain-coach combinations — it was Kohli and Anil Kumble in January, it is Kohli and Ravi Shastri now — to decide that he still had much to offer.
Between the slickness of his wicket-keeping and the accolades that his captaincy has won, Dhoni the batsman has often been overlooked. In the 50-over format, the numbers brook no argument. He has been one of the titans of the ODI game, scoring 9,891 runs at 51.78. The strike-rate of 88.43 is comparable to the best.
In other circumstances, without the twin burdens of keeping and captaincy, Dhoni might have been a top-order great. He averaged 82.75 from 16 innings at No.3 — including his highest score of 183 not out — and 58.23 from 26 innings at No.4.
But the bulk of his runs have come from No.6, which is where he finds himself now, tasked either with providing the finishing flourish, or with resuscitating an innings in decay. There is little doubt that he is now more suited for the second role. Dhoni is not an AB de Villiers or Jos Buttler that he can walk in and tee off from the first ball he faces. He likes to take his time, gauge the conditions, and construct an innings. In high-scoring matches, that is a high-risk strategy that relies heavily on catching up once he is set. It also puts a lot of pressure on the batsmen at the other end.
On a bad day, such as the one India had in Dharamsala yesterday, the Dhoni method works perfectly. The scoreboard showed 16 for 4 when he arrived at the crease. He scored two off the first 18 balls he faced, as India slumped to an embarrassing 29 for 7. Thereafter, with the tail for company, he was in his element, manipulating the strike and unveiling the big hits at regular intervals. In an innings where the others managed just seven fours between them, Dhoni struck ten fours and two huge sixes. He was last man out, for 65 off 87 balls, with the total having been boosted to 112.
For India, the worrying thing is the lack of alternatives. Dinesh Karthik can keep wicket, but plays as a batsman. In 66 innings spread over 13 years, he averages less than 30. Rishabh Pant, part of the side that reached the Under-19 World Cup final in 2016, made waves last season, but has struggled for consistency this term. Sanju Samson, once touted as an alternative, is only just back among the runs.
In conditions like India encountered in Dharamsala, when the new ball seams around prodigiously, Dhoni’s unorthodox technique is often remarkably effective. In the innings defeats at Old Trafford and The Oval in 2014, as the rest of the batsmen were blown away by Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, it was Dhoni that was top scorer, trusting his eye and playing as late as possible.
On typical Asian pitches where scores well in excess of 300 have become the norm, Dhoni the batsman can struggle to impose himself. But when scoring runs becomes a battle, he’s still one of the go-to men. In the high altitude of Dharamsala, with Kohli away preparing for a Tuscan wedding and the newer faces clueless against the kind of lateral movement usually associated with the English summer, Dhoni illustrated just why he remains a vital cog in the ODI machine.