Fearless MS Dhoni has rediscovered his sense of adventure

MS Dhoni is smashing the ball out of the park with regularity for Chennai. (AP)
Updated 29 April 2018
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Fearless MS Dhoni has rediscovered his sense of adventure

Perhaps no sphere of human activity lends itself to myth-making like sport does. The case of MS Dhoni is one such. That he is a great ODI player is beyond dispute. His place in 50-overs lore was secure long before that soaring six into the Mumbai night that clinched the 2011 World Cup for India. You just cannot argue with a record of 9967 runs at an average of 51.37 and strike-rate of 88.40. The format has suited Dhoni perfectly, allowing him to nurdle the ball around and then time his acceleration to the finish line.
Unfortunately, number-crunching that goes beyond the mundane average is such a novelty in cricket that excellence in one format is often extrapolated into suitability for another. Thus, we had Royal Challengers Bangalore picking a “Test” side for the Indian Premier League’s inaugural season (2008), and players promoted to 50-overs sides on the basis of four overs of fame. For every David Warner that bridged the chasm, a dozen others floundered in the deep end.
Sport is also so much based on highlights reels that it can be easy to miss the bigger picture. That was the case with Dhoni in Twenty20 internationals. So overwhelming were the memories of the first World T20 in 2007, when he gambled on bowling the pedestrian medium pace of Joginder Sharma in the last over of the final against Pakistan, that it utterly obscured what a mediocre player he was with the bat in the format for much of the decade that followed.
Even as the Dhoni legend grew with the IPL — he led Chennai Super Kings to two titles and four other finals in the eight seasons before they were suspended — both he and the national side continued to struggle. In 2009, 2010 and 2012, India failed to make it to the semifinals of the World T20. The scheduling of the IPL didn’t help in two of those three tournaments, but India also lacked the X-factor in a format that was evolving rapidly.
No one epitomised that struggle more than Dhoni. At the end of 2015, by which time he had overseen a loss in the World T20 final to Sri Lanka (2014), Dhoni averaged 33.61 in T20Is. The problem was his strike-rate, a dismal 116.53. Instead of the helicopter-shot-playing finisher of the IPL, the Indian team usually saw someone who seldom cleared the rope and seemed to have been left behind by a new power generation.
There is little doubt that the cares of captaincy played a part, as did the fact that the team rarely got together to play the format. More than most, Dhoni has been a creature of habit, one who thrives in his comfort zone. That has been most apparent in Chennai yellow, where his 3,670 runs have come at a strike-rate of 140.66. Contrast that with his two seasons with the Rising Pune Supergiants, where he made just two half-centuries while striking at only 124.78. In the international arena, the handbrake was released in 2016. One of the more memorable games from the latter part of the Dhoni captaincy was the World Twenty20 encounter against Bangladesh, where his presence of mind and instructions to Hardik Pandya helped salvage a hopeless situation. India may not have won the tournament — blown away by West Indian six-hitting in the semifinal — but Dhoni appeared to rediscover the sense of adventure that had long been misplaced.

The numbers bear that out. Since January 2016, his 570 runs in T20Is for India have come off just 391 balls. Both his average (43.85) and strike-rate (145.78) are significantly higher than what they were. That upswing has benefited the returning Chennai franchise as well. In 2011, when Chennai last won the title, he struck at 158.7 and whacked 25 sixes. Two years later, when they lost the final, his strike-rate was 162.89, inclusive of 23 sixes.

Half a decade on, Chennai are top of the charts, with Dhoni’s 235 runs having come at a strike-rate a smidgen under 160. There have already been 15 sixes. Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri, who have so emphatically reposed their faith in him for the 2019 World Cup, will be thrilled by this development. Without captaincy to worry about, except in Chennai colours, Dhoni looks set to enjoy a real Indian summer.   


Uruguay’s Indian cricketers searching for a permanent home

Updated 16 February 2019
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Uruguay’s Indian cricketers searching for a permanent home

  • Descendants of Indian immigrants carry banner for Uruguay in the cricket field

MONTEVIDEO: Every Sunday, close to a statue of Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, a group of Indian ex-pats take over a patch of land in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo for a game of cricket.
Tucked in between the Rio de la Plata estuary and the long promenade known as the “rambla” that stretches from one side of Montevideo to the other, Avijit Mukherjee prepares to bat, watched eagerly by his Uruguayan girlfriend.
“I played in my country but with a lot more infrastructure,” said the 28-year-old Mukherjee, whose girlfriend Veronica is the main reason he has stayed in Uruguay.
“There are stadiums and many places to play in India, whereas here we only have one.”
Although cricket was first played in Montevideo by British expat workers even before the foundation of the independent republic in 1828, its practice died out in the 1980s.
But following an influx of Indian immigrants to Uruguay at the turn of the century, cricket steadily returned to Montevideo.
First there were one-off matches. Then, the players organized their own league and even set up a Uruguayan national team.
At the end of last year, Uruguay, whose team was made up almost entirely of Indian expats, finished second in the South American championships in Colombia.
While the cricketers are now established on their little patch of land, their initial appearance was not entirely welcomed by local footballers playing on an adjacent pitch.
“We came like spiders and rebuked them,” recalls Daniel Mosco, a local resident who has been playing football in that field for 30 years.
The issue was quickly resolved, though, and the cricketers agreed to start playing only once the football matches had finished.
With no fixed cricket markings, players use flour to draw white lines.
Now, bat can be heard crashing against ball until sunset.
Even though they’ve been here for years, the shouts of “howzat!” and “wait on” still elicit glances from locals making their way along the rambla.
They make a curious spectacle for people little accustomed with either cricket or India.
Mosco, for one, was surprised that the players speak to each other in English.
And there’s another surprise in the form of 29-year-old doctor Saied Muhammad Asif Raza: he’s from Pakistan.
“Between the governments and in (professional) cricket there are always problems, but the people get on really well and within the team the are no problems whatsoever,” said Asif.
He left his home town of Multan, 10 hours from Islamabad, at 19 and moved to Cuba thanks to a Fidel Castro scholarship.
After returning home, he found he couldn’t readapt to his own culture.
“I didn’t come here to find a better life economically, I had a better life in my country because in my family we didn’t lack for anything,” said Asif.
“The thing is that when you live many years away, nowhere is home, and cricket brings me close to it.”
Although now at home on their small patch, finding something more permanent is crucial to Montevideo’s cricketers.
“We’re looking for a permanent ground,” Beerbal Maniyattukudy, the Uruguayan cricket association’s secretary, told AFP.
“We have 120 players this year. On top of that we’re starting some women’s teams and for now we have 20 people interested. We also have plans for an under-15s league.”
The solution may lie with Uruguay’s most popular football team: Penarol.
Penarol started life as the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club (CURCC), founded by British railway workers in 1891.
It was a multisport club — but just over 20 years later, its football section broke off and was absorbed by a newly created team, Penarol.
The original club’s cricket section disappeared as football became the main focus — but it was relaunched a week ago.
And crucially, Penarol are planning to build a cricket pitch an hour outside Montevideo.
“When we raised the idea of cricket, there wasn’t much to sort out; everyone was aware of what it meant to the history of the club, we just needed to work out how to make it happen,” said Leonardo Vinas, who is heading up the project.
While many club members signed up to be involved, very few have ever played cricket.
Vinas says the project will take time, not just to spread interest in the sport, but also for the club’s staff to get their heads around the rules of the game.
“Even now, we’re still not clear about certain rules.”