Columns - Straight Drive

Is Dhoni a shrewd captain or plain lucky?

By Anupam Pratihary
Sunday, February 21, 2022

The euphoria has sunk in and the dusts at the Eden Gardens have nicely settled. But the biggest irony of a victory is it conveniently covers up mistakes. The Kolkata thriller will be no different. But just like oil or truth, mistakes always surface if they are not ironed out.

The Kolkata Test was almost perfect as it had all the drama and uncertainties the game could conceive. It had the catastrophic collapse of the Proteas from 218 for 1 to 296 all out. Thereafter, it was an exhibition of Indian batsmanship at its best, producing four sparkling centuries. The scorecard read a commanding 643 for 6. Just when one thought it can’t get better, the unputdownable Hashim Amla carved out an unbeaten 123 — perhaps the most defiant century scored on the Indian soil in the recent times. And then the match climaxed with Harbhajan Singh dismissing Morne Morkel and going for his endearingly wild celebration.

As the Proteas tail piled frustration on India in Kolkata, it was the inspiring spell of Harbhajan, more than Dhoni's astute captaincy that got India home. © AFP

The fact that the victory came on a 24-carat sporting track and that too with strike bowler Zaheer Khan back in the pavilion with injury makes it that much more special. But the question is should we conveniently forget the baffling errors the team made in both the Tests, until they resurface again?

The symptoms of unimaginative captaincy crept alarmingly within the first 10 overs of the Nagpur Test. The tourists were struggling at 6 for 2 in the seventh over and then they were allowed to put on a partnership of 340 runs, thanks to Dhoni’s captaincy that lacked bite and aggression and fielding that leaked runs generously.

In the 11th over, Dhoni introduced his henchman Harbhajan Singh when both Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis were just a couple of overs old at the wicket and yet there was no silly point or backward shortleg to force the new batsmen into making errors. Isn’t Test cricket, for most part, played above the shoulder?

It was even more disappointing to see an off-side field as porous as Indo-Pak border and strangely enough the leg side was packed with forward shortleg, square leg, mid-wicket and mid-on. It’s difficult to say whether the spinners wanted the field or it was the captain’s design. In an effort to bowl according to the field, both Harbhajan and Amit Mishra were bowling wrong line and the spread out off side ensured the runs flowed with disconcerting frequency and batsmen never felt the pressure.

Can we expect this from a certain Ricky Ponting while leading his team? Once he finds the foot in the door, he rallies his team into an unrelenting frenzy till the door is thrown wide open.

So, did Team India go into the series believing they were the world champions or was the absence of Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh and uncertainty over VVS Laxman playing heavily on the collective consciousness of the management and players? The diffidence in the Nagpur Test was clearly visible and a crack team like South Africa exploited it to the hilt.

Another aspect of Team India that continues to worry is that it wins most of the matches through sheer talent and very little of planning. India mostly outclasses opposition but rarely out-thinks.

... another aspect of Team India that continues to worry is that it wins most of the matches through sheer talent and very little of planning. India mostly outclasses opposition but rarely out-thinks.

The Proteas showed the power and efficacy of planning in the first Test when Smith with his aggressive captaincy and a rather modest and uni-dimensional bowling of Paul Harris choked the runs for India. It forced the batsmen to gift their wickets in sheer frustration. Backed by smart field placing, even a negative line from Harris acquired penetration that rattled the likes of Tendulkar and Dhoni in the second innings.

Again, matters were allowed to drift in South Africa’s second innings of the Kolkata Test. The last four wickets lasted for 57.3 overs and produced 118 runs. The helplessness of Indian team was palpable. And yet again it was the inspiring spell of Harbhajan, more than astute captaincy or fielding, that got India the famous victory.

Captain Dhoni need must realize that fielding is an integral part of team strategy and should be used to effect dismissal by choking up the runs. Inspiration alone cannot be used as a tool all the time to defeat top teams like South Africa and Australia. Meticulous planning and shrewd captaincy are too valuable ingredients of strategy not to be considered.

The skipper surely deserves accolades for leading India to a stunning victory. He may have that incredible slice of good fortune a successful captain requires, but he still needs to raise his captaincy by a few notches, which currently lacks skillful deceit and ruthlessness of a top leader.