Is MS Dhoni the finisher a spent force now?

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Is MS Dhoni the finisher a spent force now?

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Bastab K Parida

07/04/2017

When Mohammed Shami became Jason Holder's fifth victim in the 4th ODI, the camera turned towards a certain MS Dhoni. Sitting in the dressing room with eyes hollow, face blank, his mind at a distant place, it was a far cry from the unemotional exterior that has defined his aura as a cricketer.

What had happened before that moment will perhaps go down as one of the most bizarre innings Dhoni has played in his career, where he struggled for timing and simply could not find the gaps while scoring 54 runs off 114 balls with a single boundary, the slowest half-century by an Indian batsman in 16 years. It was quite a fall for the man, who was once considered to have set the impossible standard for finishing off games. But in 2015, when a young Kagiso Rabada denied him 11 runs in the last over at the Green Park stadium in Kanpur, it was the first time in his career that the legendary Dhoni's abilities were being questioned. The emergence of a 19-year-old wicket-keeper batsman from Delhi, who grabbed the nation's attention after scoring the fastest ever century in Ranji history (which was later contested by Shakti Singh), didn't really help the veteran's case.  

Of late, there have been enough instances to show that the former skipper is simply not playing to his usual lofty standards - with the same unerring consistency - and Sunday’s knock was a frightening illustration of just how much his game has dwindled in the last couple of years. In his heyday, Dhoni’s greatest strength always was finding the boundary at the perfect time, but now his current repertoire of shots end up being harmless singles on either side of long-on and long-off. The much-fabled short-arm jab to the cow-corner has completely disappeared in recent times as well. Despite playing a match-winning unbeaten 78 runs off 79 balls in the third ODI at the same venue, Dhoni was not close to his best when it came to connecting the hits, down the ground, with the same ferocity as he had produced in the years gone by. 

On Sunday, he was tied down by Holder’s assortment of bowlers as Kesrick Williams, playing only his second ODI, used the cutter to great effect on a sluggish pitch to trouble Dhoni. On another day, Williams could have been the bowler to be targeted, but it wasn’t to be for the Dhoni of the present. The pacer conceded only 13 runs in his last 4 overs before ending Dhoni’s "blockathon" in the penultimate over of the innings, thus raising the same question yet again - Is MS Dhoni already past his prime? 

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Yes. He has and his prowess has certainly dwindled, which forced him to bring a change to his vastly successful ODI doctrine. But more than the lack of runs, it is rather Dhoni’s approach to the game that has been a talking point. The 35-year-old seems to be more pessimistic and cynical while walking on to the crease, with an overlying fear of not giving up his wicket at any cost, which doesn’t help team’s cause. Agreed, in Antigua, the wicket was not that easy to bat on but nothing signifies scoring runs at 47.30 strike rate when you have been at the crease for close to 34 overs. 

There is no denying the fact that Dhoni has been caught up with technical and mental fallacies, but amidst all that, the 35-year-old has still more than enough left in the tank to keep up with the physical demands of limited-overs cricket due to his adrenaline-powered surge between the wickets. Still, when it comes to his glovework, there is hardly anyone who can come close to him in the current age. To go along with the unnatural calmness he shows, behind the wickets, during high-pressure situations, he is an invaluable asset when it comes to assisting his skipper in a DRS call. However, with the changing landscape of ODI cricket and with the new fielding restrictions, Dhoni has failed to cope with the growing demands of batsmanship. The middle phase of the game, which he used to boss with his defensive approach before launching the assault, has largely been exposed and bowlers have become more successful in tying him down by keeping the ball in the outside off-stump area. 

It is also important to remember that in three days of time, the former India captain will turn 36. Cricket, now-a-days, is an ultra-professional sport, which demands great levels of fitness and mental endurance. So it appears that the task at hand is too heavy for Dhoni if he wishes to continue until the 2019 World Cup in England. On the other hand, Rishabh Pant is making all the right noises and to say that he is knocking on the door for a starting role would be a gross understatement. So perhaps it is time for Dhoni to assess himself and takes the call just the way he did for Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, and Sourav Ganguly before the 2008 Commonwealth series. 

With the "Dhoni force" waning, it has also become important for the guys like Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya to take up the onus on their shoulders. An opportunity, like this, to seal a spot in the national team doesn’t come often. So it’s up to them to lose from here on and if they can realise this at the earliest, that will be the perfect tribute to the man who has donned the difficult role for many years now. 

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